BLM advances plan to promote development in Colo. solar zone

Posted: Mar 22, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, Greenwire
Solar in Alamosa County

The Obama administration is asking the solar power industry to submit proposals for large-scale projects inside two designated solar energy zones in southern Colorado, a region considered to have some of the nation's best solar-energy potential.

The Bureau of Land Management today announced it will publish a "notice seeking public interest" designed to gauge the industry's interest in developing commercial-scale projects inside two solar energy zones (SEZs) covering 3,714 acres of federal land in the San Luis Valley, according to the agency.

This marks the first time BLM has formally requested industry proposals inside any of the 17 SEZs established last fall by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. The SEZs are part of a programmatic environmental impact statement (EIS) that identified more than a quarter-million acres of public lands in six Southwest states where commercial-scale projects would be most suitable.

The two Colorado SEZs at issue today are the 1,064-acre De Tilla Gulch zone in Saguache County and the 2,650-acre Los Mogotes East zone in nearby Conejos County, according to an advance notice published in today's Federal Register.

BLM plans to formally publish the notice seeking interested parties in tomorrow's Register, kicking off a 60-day period to file proposals ending May 20.

BLM has estimated that the De Tilla Gulch and Los Mogotes SEZs, if built out, have the potential to produce 412 megawatts of electricity, which is enough to power more than 140,000 homes.

The interested parties must submit an application by the deadline that, among other things, describes the project and the technology that's proposed to be used and includes a statement of need and the "likely environmental effects" of the proposed project on air quality, groundwater and visual resources, according to BLM's application process.

If BLM receives a large number of project proposals, or determines there is sufficient competition for select locations within the two SEZs, the agency could decide to use the "competitive bidding process" to select an applicant, said Denise Adamic, a BLM spokeswoman in Canon City, Colo.

"This process will facilitate the Department of the Interior's smart from the start approach of making lands available for development in the Solar Energy Zones designated by the Solar EIS and also ensure that any proposed projects provide for full environmental analysis and public review," BLM Colorado State Director Helen Hankins said today in a statement.

But solar energy industry representatives say that Interior has yet to formalize rules governing the competitive process for projects in the SEZs, and that the new notice of public interest could spark confusion because the industry has no clear idea how the process will unfold.

"The solar industry is pleased to see BLM taking steps to move forward with solar projects on federal lands in Colorado," said Katherine Gensler, director of government affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association. "Still, it remains unclear what the final outcome of this competitive process will yield."

Gensler added, "We're hopeful that this extended process will not impede solar development and prevent the deployment of more much-needed clean solar power for American homes and businesses."

BLM says in today's notice that the Federal Land Policy and Management Act authorizes BLM "to determine whether competition exists among [right-of-way] applications filed for the same facility or system. The regulations also allow the BLM to resolve any such competition by using competitive bidding procedures."

Ongoing effort

Still, the request for project proposals continues the administration's efforts to use federal land to promote the development of renewables, particularly solar power.

BLM since 2009 has approved 20 solar power projects capable of producing more than 7,000 MW of electricity, or enough to power roughly 2 million homes.

The administration has focused a considerable amount of effort on assisting the industry by locating areas on federal land where the solar resources are good but the natural resources values are low and not likely to spark protests from environmentalists.

The 17 SEZs Salazar approved last fall were chosen because the solar potential is high, the sites are near electricity transmission lines and the natural resource values are low. In total, the 17 solar zones are capable of producing up to 23,700 MW of solar energy, enough to power roughly 7 million homes.

BLM has four SEZs in Colorado covering 16,000 acres, all in the San Luis Valley, which if built out could produce up to 1,812 MW of electricity. But the De Tilla Gulch and Los Mogotes zones were chosen for the latest notice of public interest because Chevy Chase, Md.-based EPG Solar LLC last year submitted applications for possible solar projects in both zones, according to the agency.

As part of the solar programmatic EIS that established the SEZs, when BLM receives a project application, the agency is required to make a formal notice of public interest before a lease can be issued, Adamic said.

But again, the solar energy industry says the rules for developing in these zones still need to be formalized.

And while most conservation groups have generally supported the overall solar development plan and its 17 SEZs, it is not without critics.

A coalition of environmental groups last month filed a lawsuit challenging the solar development plan, arguing Interior should have considered limiting development to homes and previously disturbed lands (E&ENews PM, Feb. 13).

The lawsuit, filed by the Western Watersheds Project, Western Lands Project and Desert Protective Council, claims BLM's National Environmental Policy Act review ignored alternatives that would have fewer environmental consequences, be more efficient and save taxpayer dollars.

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