This week the Obama administration released its final blueprint for expediting utility-scale solar energy development in six southwestern states. The plan encompasses 285,000 acres of public land in 17 “solar energy zones” in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. With an additional 19 million acres of land identified as “variance” areas available for solar development (but without the “fast-tracking” allowed in the 17 zones), the administration estimates that it is laying the groundwork for the development of 23,700 megawatts, enough energy to power 7 million homes.
The process has been contentious, as environmental groups supportive of renewable energy development (including the Sierra Club) have worked to protect fragile public lands while opening them to what amounts to industrial devlopment. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said that his agency addresses such concerns in the final plan, which covers about 40 percent of the land that had been considered for speedy solar energy development. Writes the New York Times: “Officials said they were fencing off more than 78 million acres of public land from solar development because the areas had less solar energy potential, did not have immediate access to transmission lines or posed a threat to important archaeological or cultural sites, endangered species, scarce water resources or other environmental values if developed.”
“This Administration’s design for solar development on public lands is based on sound principles, particularly by focusing projects in locations with the lowest impacts on wildlife habitat, lands and water,” said Barbara Boyle, senior campaign representative at the Sierra Club. “Limiting projects to low impact zones will also reduce the financial and natural resource costs of electrical transmission.”
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Reed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”