Approval of major Ariz. renewable energy development plan announced

Posted: Jan 21, 2013

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Solar in the desert

The Obama administration has formally approved a renewable energy development plan in Arizona that establishes a new solar energy zone and identifies thousands of acres of public lands that are already disturbed or have low natural resource values as suitable for large-scale solar and wind-power development.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today unveiled a formal record of decision (ROD) approving the Bureau of Land Management plan, which identifies dozens of "Renewable Energy Development Areas" covering 192,100 acres, mostly in south and southwest Arizona, and establishes a 2,550-acre "Solar Energy Zone" (SEZ) in Yuma County determined by the agency as suitable for utility-scale solar projects, according to the Interior Department.

The ROD, signed today by BLM Arizona State Director Raymond Suazo, will be formally published Tuesday in the Federal Register.

The approved plan amends eight BLM resource management plans across the state to allow for solar and wind development within the boundaries of the Renewable Energy Development Areas, all of which are within 5 miles of an existing transmission line or a designated transmission corridor and close to major load centers such as cities, towns or industrial centers.

The development areas and the new SEZ are part of BLM's Restoration Design Energy Project, which began in Arizona nearly four years ago to identify already-contaminated lands in the state that would be suitable for reuse as wind farms and solar arrays.

Under the new plan, individual projects would still need to go through a separate environmental review and federal permitting. But in exchange for developing projects in one of the Renewable Energy Development Areas, energy developers are assured of a faster permitting process and likely fewer challenges from environmental groups concerned about impacts to sensitive wildlife habitat.

"This project is a key milestone in our work to spur smart development of solar and wind energy on public lands across the West," Salazar said today in a statement. "Arizona has huge potential when it comes to building a clean energy economy, and this landscape-level plan lays a solid foundation for making sure that it happens in the right way and in the right places."

The Obama administration since 2009 has approved 34 solar, wind and geothermal power projects on public land that, if all are built as planned, would have the capacity to produce up to 10,400 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 3 million homes.

BLM this month is expected to release a new list of high-priority solar, wind and geothermal power projects that it plans to move through the federal permitting process by the end of this year and 2014.

"As we advance the president's energy strategy," Salazar said, "we continue to work closely with states, local communities, tribes, industry, conservation and other groups to reduce potential resource conflicts and expedite appropriate projects that will generate jobs and investment in rural communities."

That exemplifies the Obama administration's "Smart-from-the-Start" strategy for siting renewables projects away from environmentally sensitive and culturally significant areas, said Mike Pool, BLM's acting director.

Example: The designation in the new plan of the 2,550-acre Agua Caliente SEZ near Dateland, Ariz., which is now one of three SEZs in the state and 18 nationwide.

The other two Arizona zones were part of 17 SEZs included in a sweeping solar-development plan approved by Salazar last fall covering more than a quarter-million acres of federal tracts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah (E&ENews PM, Oct. 12, 2012).

"The Arizona project can really serve as a model for future statewide analyses for responsible energy development in the West," Pool said in a statement.

A long process

The Restoration Design Energy Project has drawn raves from the renewable energy industry and from conservation leaders.

Michael Neary, executive director of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association, has said the project will help spur more solar energy proposals on federal land in the state by funneling proposed solar plants to suitable sites, thus making it easier to get projects permitted.

The Restoration Design Energy Project initially began as a BLM pilot project in Arizona to identify dozens of contaminated and disturbed parcels that could be used to house renewable energy projects.

Under the Restoration Design Energy Project, launched in June 2009 and funded with $1.7 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds, BLM received more than 80 nominated sites from industry and government leaders, environmentalists and residents, ranging from an unused 2,880-acre airplane landing strip north of Tucson, Ariz., to a 20-acre gravel pit in rural northeast Arizona.

The effort was the first attempt by the agency to test whether contaminated or disturbed sites can be reused to house solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal power plants.

BLM hoped it would help quell the kind of opposition that has stymied numerous proposed renewable energy projects in other states, including solar arrays in California's Mojave Desert and wind turbines in southern Wyoming. Environmentalists have argued that siting plants in such sensitive landscapes will destroy wildlife habitat and threaten rare species such as California desert tortoises and Wyoming sage grouse.

But a careful review of the already-disturbed parcels nominated to the agency eliminated many of them, and BLM officials quickly realized there was not enough acreage to make much of a difference.

So BLM broadened the project to include areas with low wildlife habitat values in addition to already disturbed areas.

The ROD signed today sets standards for projects to avoid impacts to sensitive watersheds and groundwater supplies and establishes a baseline set of environmental protection measures for proposed renewable energy projects.

BLM's effort to prioritize proper siting of large-scale renewables projects is commendable, said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon Chapter in Phoenix.

"Disturbed lands -- old mine sites, landfills and other areas that need restoration -- are where we should be looking for larger solar and wind projects, so we commend the BLM for moving in this direction," Bahr said.

However, she said the best way to avoid negative impacts to sensitive desert ecosystems is to promote the development of renewables "on rooftops, at community scale."

"Contrary to the belief of some, especially those who have never been here," she said, "the Sonoran Desert is a rich diverse landscape that provides important habitat for many species of plants and animals."

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