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Environmental Science

Solar Energy Planning for the Southwest

EVS supports a federal program for managing utility-scale solar energy development in six southwestern states.

EVS is supporting the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and Department of Energy (DOE) in efforts to facilitate solar energy development in six southwestern states. Speaking of this important renewable energy initiative, former EVS director John Krummel said, We are pleased to support efforts to identify areas that are most suitable for future solar energy development in the Southwest. Developing a blueprint for future solar energy development will help facilitate faster and more efficient utility-scale solar development on America’s public lands.”

In July 2012, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of the DOI, in partnership with the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Program, issued the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for Solar Energy Development in Six Southwestern States. The Solar PEIS is a major step in the permitting of utility-scale solar energy projects on public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The BLM signed its Record of Decision in October 2012, implementing the decisions analyzed in the Solar PEIS. Together, the Record of Decision and the Solar PEIS provide a roadmap for solar energy development on public lands by defining specific locations for solar energy zones – areas with access to existing or planned transmission and the fewest resource conflicts – along with incentives for development within these zones.

EVS supported DOI and DOE in preparing the Solar PEIS by conducting in-depth assessments of potential effects of solar development on soil, water, air, protected and endangered species, and cultural and visual resources. Detailed analyses of the solar energy zones generated considerable site-specific information. For example, Argonne analyzed the sensitivity to disturbance of stream channels in proposed solar energy zones.

Intermittent/ephemeral stream channel sensitivity to surface disturbances around the Brenda solar energy zone in Arizona. [Source: Argonne National Laboratory]

In addition, Argonne conducted innovative assessments of the potential for visual impacts from solar development, providing visualizations of schematic models of hypothetical solar facilities as viewed from surrounding observation points.

Google Earth visualization of the Gillespie solar energy zone in Arizona (orange tint) and surrounding lands, with power tower wireframe model, as seen from Signal Mountain. [Source: Argonne National Laboratory]

Argonne’s analyses provided the basis for identifying locations on BLM-administered lands that are most suitable for future solar energy development and enabled identification of appropriate measures for mitigating impacts. The analyses led to new BLM and DOE policies and programs to help guide future solar energy development.

The release of the final Solar PEIS builds on historic progress in fostering renewable energy development on public lands. In 2009, no solar projects were permitted on public lands. As of May 2021, permitted renewable energy projects on BLM-managed lands include 37 solar projects with a total capacity of more than 7,000 MW.

The following are some key elements of the final Solar PEIS and Record of Decision:

  • Evaluation and designation of 17 solar energy zones on 285,000 acres of public lands that will be priority areas for utility-scale solar development.

  • A process for industry, the public, and other interested stakeholders to propose new or expanded zones.

  • Strong incentives for development within zones.

  • A variance process with clear requirements for development of well-sited projects on approximately 19 million acres outside the zones.

  • Exclusion of 79 million acres from solar energy development to protect natural and cultural resources.

  • Mitigation requirements to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery of solar energy.

  • A framework for developing regional mitigation plans and a strategy for monitoring and adaptive management.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed the Record of Decision for the Solar PEIS on October 12, 2012.

EVS will continue to aid in developing the BLM Solar Energy Program. For example, EVS is supporting BLM in developing regional mitigation strategies and long-term environmental monitoring programs that will guide solar energy development on public lands in the BLM solar energy zones.

One EVS report, An Overview of Potential Environmental, Cultural, and Socioeconomic Impacts and Mitigation Measures for Utility-Scale Solar Energy Development, summarizes potential impacts and mitigation measures related to utility-scale solar energy development on all lands. A second report, Evaluating Potential Human Health Risks Associated with the Development of Utility-Scale Solar Energy Facilities on Contaminated Sites, provides a methodology for obtaining preliminary estimates of potential human health risks associated with siting solar energy facilities on previously developed, contaminated lands. The methodology is readily applicable for the analysis of 700+ chemicals, including those commonly identified as contaminants at federal and non-federal Superfund sites, abandoned mine lands, and sites regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Additional EVS research includes evaluating water availability issues and analyzing impacts on visual resources and potential mitigation measures.