In October 2012, the BLM, along with the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Program (overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy), adopted a plan that establishes a blueprint for how and where utility-scale solar projects will be permitted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Known as the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Solar Energy Development (aka Solar PEIS), the plan identifies 18 solar energy zones (SEZs) on 287,550 acres of public land. The PEIS also keeps the door open for solar projects to be sited outside the SEZs, on an additional 19 million acres of variance lands where projects will be approved on a case-by-case basis.
Prior to finalizing the PEIS with stakeholders, the DOI approved 17 desert solar projects—several in areas that were later precluded from development in the final draft due to further analysis and stakeholder input. “The fact that the DOI has grandfathered in these projects completely undermines the planning process. These projects are moving forward without any regard for the stakeholders’ input and the analysis that went into developing the PEIS,” says Lisa Belinky, senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
“The plan creates a little more focus. Technically, from the DOI’s interpretation, there is less land on the table because they’ve removed zones, but in reality, they’ve opened up 19 million acres in variance lands with virtually no analysis. That’s a big step backward,” says April Sall, conservation director for the Wildlands Conservancy, which, in 2000, raised $45 million to purchase 560,000 acres of the Mojave Desert and then deeded the land to the federal government to protect for perpetuity. A portion of those acres could end up in an RE development zone, depending on the outcome of another BLM PEIS currently being drafted.
According to Shannon Stewart, BLM senior National Environmental Policy Act specialist, applications for variance lands will need to meet higher standards of analysis than those for SEZs, with applicants required to do more upfront work and resource gathering. She also notes that any projects for variance lands must be approved by the BLM field manager on the ground and then go on for a second-level review in Washington—a measure that she says “will bring consistency” to the process.
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), in conjunction with the Large-Scale Solar Association (LSA), were among groups that objected to a criterion that excludes solar development lands that receive less than 6.5 kWh per square meter of daily insolation. Although intended to support high-efficiency projects with greater production capacity (since a smaller physical footprint may also have fewer environmental impacts), the BLM has since conceded this point. Developers may be able to obtain special permission for projects on lands that don’t meet the criterion.
“We hope that this decision results in a permitting process that brings more solar online to serve the American people,” says Rhone Resch, president and CEO of SEIA. “The PEIS identifies a process that has the potential to accommodate well-sited solar power plants outside of designated solar energy zones and protects the rights of pending solar applications. The BLM must ensure pending projects do not get bogged down in more bureaucratic processes.”
Meanwhile, in California, the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan provides stakeholders with another opportunity to be heard. The plan is a joint state and federal effort to identify areas within the state for RE development and areas for long-term conservation. As part of the process, the SEZs and variance areas outlined in the Solar PEIS will be updated with further analysis, and tribal groups will collaborate with state agencies on a cultural sensitivity map that identifies areas with minimum cultural and natural resource conflicts. The first draft is expected by June 2013.