CO2 Emissions

Published on January 20th, 2013 | by Andrew


“Smart from the Start” — Government Establishes Arizona Solar Energy Zones

January 20th, 2013 by  

Departing Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar on January 18 announced the designation of 192,100 acres of public land in Arizona “as potentially suitable for utility-scale solar and wind energy development.” Publication of Interior’s Record of Decision (ROD) also establishes the Agua Caliente Solar Energy Zone, “the third solar zone on public lands in Arizona and the 18th nationwide.”

Establishing the Agua Caliente Solar Energy Zone follows on as part of the Obama Administration’s federal blueprint for environmentally sensitive development of large-scale solar power projects spanning six Western states. The Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) was officially launched with a press conference in Las Vegas last October.

The Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the Department of Energy determined there’s a whopping 31,000 MW of solar energy potential across the 17 areas spanning the six western states.

The Arizona Restoration Design Energy Project

Dubbed the Restoration Design Energy Project (RDEP), the ROD caps “a three-year, statewide environmental analysis of disturbed land and other areas with few known resource conflicts that could accommodate commercial renewable energy projects” the Interior Department explains in a press release.

“This project is a key milestone in our work to spur smart development of solar and wind energy on public lands across the West,” Secretary Salazar said. “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.”

Secretary Salazar emphasized the comprehensive, inclusive, and collaborative nature of the federal Arizona ROD and Solar Energy Zone initiative.

“As we advance the President’s energy strategy, 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.”

Environmentally Sensitive Renewable Energy Development

The BLM administers 12.2 million acres of public land in Arizona. Those designated suitable for renewable energy project development include sites such as agricultural lands that have been disturbed, as well as those deemed of “low resource sensitivity and few environmental conflicts.”

Those BLM lands in Arizona that contain “sensitive resources” that require protection — such as those home to endangered or threatened wildlife and cultural and historical importance — were excluded from consideration.

In addition, the Department of the Interior explains that the ROD sets project standards designed to avoid impacts on watersheds, ground water supplies, and water quality. It also sets an environmental protection baseline for proposed renewable energy projects.

“This initiative exemplifies our ‘Smart-from-the-Start’ review process, which puts appropriate pieces in place for responsibly developing renewable energy projects on public lands,” acting BLM Director Mike Pool commented. “The Arizona project can really serve as a model for future statewide analyses for responsible energy development in the West.”

Yuma County’s Agua Caliente Solar Energy Development Zone

Located in Yuma County near Dateland in the southwestern corner of Arizona, the Agua Caliente Solar Energy Zone spans 2,550 acres of public land. BLM estimates that more than 20 MW of clean, renewable electricity could be generated across the area via utility-scale solar power projects.

The Obama Administration has approved proposals for 34 renewable energy projects on public lands since 2009, including solar, wind, and geothermal projects with a combined capacity to generate some 10,400 MW of clean, renewable power.

“Energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled since the President took office, and with today’s milestone, we are laying a sustainable foundation to keep expanding our nation’s domestic energy resources,” Secretary Salazar stated during the launch of the federal Solar PEIS in Las Vegas last October.

“This historic initiative provides a roadmap for landscape-level planning that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands and reflects President Obama’s commitment to grow American made energy and create jobs.”

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About the Author

I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.

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  • Opening 19 million acres of ecologically valuable public wildlands to industrial solar development is anything but smart from the start. Distributed, point of use solar generation is faster, more cost-effective, efficient and equitable. We should target the VAST built environment already devoted to meeting human needs first. Read the Solar Done Right report “US Public Lands Solar Policy: Wrong From The Start” here:

    • Bob_Wallace

      How about helping us out with some perspective.

      Three questions:

      1) How many total ecologically valuable public wildlands acres are there? I.e., help us calculate the proportion opened for use.

      2) How many acres out of that 19 million are likely to be used for large scale solar?

      3) How many acres of ecologically valuable public wildlands, agricultural lands and other use lands worldwide would be destroyed by runaway climate change?

      • Also, in Arizona (as with elsewhere) public lands are used for cattle grazing, which absolutely destroys these areas. Over-grazing is arguably the largest destructive force in Arizona. I have walked over thousands of acres in southern Arizona and I can tell you that many of these areas resemble images sent back to us from the Mars Rover. Deflated soils from loss of ground cover leaving zero vegetation. Putting solar panels on these exhausted lands would allow them to recover somewhat.

    • This is just public lands. The world’s largest solar power plant is located on private lands about ten miles north of Dateland, Arizona, and around 30 miles west of Yuma, Arizona. This land had been used to grow produce for decades, and it was anything but ecologically valuable. It was plowed, lazer-levelled, and ringed by access roads long before the Agua Caliente Solar Power plant project broke ground. Also, most of my neighbors can’t even get it together to keep their yards clean, so to expect each individual home owner to invest time and money into putting solar panels on their roof is simply a lost cause. Yes, it WOULD be the right idea, but I will not hold my breath. Until then, utility-scale renewable power plants are the way to go. (disclaimer: I put solar panels on my home two years ago and am quite happy with them.)

    • science guru

      You are exactly right, there is no reason to do this when we have plenty of already built human development. The problem is that the utilities don’t want any solar energy that they don’t control and then charge overpriced billing for it. The real issue is getting the government to address the obstructions the utilities invent every day and the crafty financial twisting they do with the monies they collect from rate-payers to fund their utility scale projects. Take a look at their financial dockets on file with the utility regulation entities and you will see they are cooking the books. Here in Arizona, we now have the regulators in bed with the utilities.

      • Bob_Wallace

        At this point in time large scale arrays are cost efficient enough to be usable. That means that we need some relatively tiny places where it is really sunny and that are close to existing transmission lines in order to get affordable solar on the grid.

        I don’t think we’ll see much large scale solar in the long term. Because rooftop solar costs compete with retail rather than wholesale costs and have little to no real estate permitting or transmission costs we’re likely to see our solar go on rooftops and over parking lots.

        “Opening 19 million acres of ecologically valuable public wildlands to industrial solar development” is a distortion of facts. The 19 million acres are the less-valuable parts of the total public wildlands.

        Interior looked public lands and said “These are the most important for ecological, attractiveness, whatever reasons – we will not permit projects on these lands. These other public lands, the “19 million”, are places where we would not likely object placement of a project.”

        Some people throw the 19 million number around as if all that space would be used. That’s ridiculous. It’s dishonest.

        The Federal Government owns nearly 650 million acres of land. 19 million is 3% of that total. And I’d be very surprised if even 500,000 acres are used. That’s 0.08% of all federal land.

        If you want to protect the environment, as many of us do, then be careful to be truthful and precise. Those who oppose renewable energy will seize on any slip that gives them something to use to attack renewables.

        I would not be surprised at all if there weren’t fossil-fuel funded individuals posing as environmentalists and raging about the “19 million spoiled acres” right now.

        Concern trolls.

      • Well said.

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