Argonne supports solar energy planning in Southwest

By Brian GrabowskiAugust 14, 2012

The US Departments of the Interior (DOI) and Energy (DOE) have reached a milestone in their efforts to accelerate solar energy development on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah — a corner of the country where the sun shines strong and hard.

With support from Argonne National Laboratory’s Environmental Science division, the federal agencies have issued the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States (Solar PEIS), a report that outlines specific locations, permitting processes, incentives, mitigation strategies and adaptive management plans for solar energy development.

Part of the administration's "all-of-the-above" energy strategy, the Solar PEIS represents a major step forward in diversifying the country’s energy portfolio. The document provides a roadmap for informed solar energy development that avoids, minimizes and mitigates biological, ecological, cultural, scenic and socioeconomic impacts.

Argonne scientists helped prepare the report by assessing the potential impacts of solar development on resources, including soil, water, air, protected and endangered wildlife, cultural resources and visual resources.

Argonne's work helped DOE and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identify BLM-administered lands that are optimal for solar energy development. Argonne research also helped the agencies determine mitigation strategies and develop new policies and programs to guide future development.

“We are pleased to support the agencies’ efforts to identify areas that are most suitable to future solar energy development in the southwestern U.S.,” said John Krummel, director of Argonne’s Environmental Science division. “Developing a blueprint for future solar energy development will help facilitate faster and more efficient utility-scale solar development on America’s public lands.”

The Solar PEIS identifies and evaluates 17 proposed Solar Energy Zones, comprising 285,000 acres of public land, as priority areas for solar energy projects. The document also identifies another 19 million acres as “variance areas” that could accommodate solar energy projects on the condition that developers conduct additional environmental impact studies. To protect natural and cultural assets, the Solar PEIS identifies 78 million acres of land where solar energy development would be prohibited.

Solar energy projects on the Solar Energy Zones and variance areas are expected to yield 23,700 megawatts of renewable energy, which can power 7 million American homes.

The release of the Final Solar PEIS builds on previous successes in fostering renewable energy development on public lands. In 2009, there were no solar projects permitted on public lands. Since then, DOI has approved 17 utility-scale solar energy projects that will create more than 10,600 jobs and produce nearly 5,900 megawatts of energy—enough to power approximately 1.8 million American homes.

Renewable energy from sources like wind and solar have doubled over the past three years. The Solar PEIS supports U.S. efforts to create renewable energy projects that are “smart from the start,” such as DOI’s offshore wind program. This includes incorporating the input of diverse stakeholders, using existing grid infrastructure and adopting technologies that support American industries.

Argonne will continue to help the BLM’s Solar Energy Program develop mitigation tactics and make siting and design decisions based on sound science. Scientists in the Environmental Science division are already supporting BLM on a mitigation pilot study for the Dry Lake Solar Energy Zone.

The Final Solar PEIS is available for viewing online.

The Federal Register Notice of Availability for the Final PEIS, issued on July 27, will begin a 30-day protest period, after which DOI may consider adopting the document through a Record of Decision.

About Argonne

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.