Hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat and sensitive public lands once targeted for large-scale solar power plants are now off the table, sparing threatened desert tortoises, desert bighorn sheep, golden eagles and other unique wildlife.
On Thursday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released an improved draft of the federal government’s plan for solar energy development on public lands in the West, which dropped some proposed energy zones that Defenders opposed, such as the Iron Mountain and Pisgah zones in California.
The announcement came as good news for wildlife, but it could also spell a bright future for the emerging solar power industry.
That’s because the Bureau of Land Management made several improvements to the plan that could jumpstart responsible solar energy development in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
BLM officials say the draft plan now aims to focus development in sunny places that also have a better chance of avoiding and minimizing impacts on wildlife and the environment.
Solar power projects that steer clear of wildlife habitat and fragile desert lands, says Defenders senior director for renewable energy Jim Lyons, tend to face less controversy and fewer slowdowns.
“The benefits of guided development are clear: Clean energy can come online faster and at a lower cost to developers and to our nation’s wildlife and treasured places,” he says.
Defenders and the conservation community worked alongside solar industry representatives earlier this year to answer to the question of how to quickly ramp up solar energy production without sacrificing imperiled wildlife and the unique desert landscape.
After long hours of negotiations, the group agreed on a number of commonsense solutions, including removing some inappropriate zones, a process for creating new zones to meet future energy demand, and giving developers some flexibility to plan projects on low-conflict lands outside the zones.
BLM worked these ideas into the new draft of the plan after receiving more than 80,000 public comments last summer, including thousands from Defenders’ members and supporters.
“Although the new draft has reduced the amount of land available for solar development, the proposed areas appear to offer a bigger shot at success,” says California program director, Kim Delfino, who helped to draft the joint comments. “The remaining zones, which still total nearly 300,000 acres, have been refined to help developers avoid and minimize the worst impacts on wildlife and the environment.”
There’s still ample opportunity for solar growth in California and across the West, she adds, pointing out that BLM is still considering some 79 solar project applications on nearly 700,000 acres of land.
There is also the potential for new solar zones to be created through the Interior Department’s proposed solar plan and California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan process, which aims to identify important places in the desert to protect for conservation and areas that are suitable for renewable energy development.
The Bureau of Land Management is taking public comment on the supplement to the draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement over the next three months.
Meanwhile, Defenders will be taking a closer look at the nearly 600-page-long document to make sure it delivers on its promise of a “Smart from the Start” solar energy program.