November 8, 2011
A time to shine
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar recently announced a new comprehensive plan to develop solar energy on federal public lands in the West. Interior’s approach to guide solar development to appropriate low-conflict areas, or “energy zones,” will help reduce time and costs for permitting, providing greater certainty for project success and generating clean energy faster. This type of solar development is what Salazar calls “Smart from the Start.”
The new plan, contained in a document supplementing the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, is the result of months of work by the Obama administration to address concerns and recommendations submitted jointly from conservation groups and solar industry companies, and from more than 80,000 public comments from people across the nation earlier this year.
The document provides additional environmental analysis of 17 proposed solar energy zones and explains that seven of the zones originally proposed were eliminated, some because they were “stranded” without transmission, others because of lack of industry interest or high environmental conflicts. It also details a process for adding additional development areas and provides developers with some flexibility to site well-designed projects outside of zones through a variance process.
Already a number of large solar energy projects on public lands located mostly in California have been approved. When these projects become operational, they are expected to generate enough clean energy to power more than one million homes. This will not only reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, it will result in billions of dollars of investments in clean technologies that will create jobs and help recharge our economy.
The American public supports renewables – a major opinion study by the Pew Research Center released earlier this year found that a large majority of Americans favor developing renewables instead of expanding the use of fossil fuels.
Concerns have, however, been raised about the immediate and long-term environmental impacts of these projects to public lands, wildlife and other natural resources. Some have even called for a complete ban on renewable projects on public lands. This is the wrong approach because appropriately-sited renewable energy projects can be built on our public lands in a way that minimizes the impacts on the environment.
To meet our nation’s renewable energy goals and achieve the economic security that comes from reduced dependence on fossil fuels, we need multiple strategies to increase our renewable energy production. One important strategy is wide deployment of much smaller power generation options, such as rooftop solar. But small-scale generation, by itself, even with an aggressive target, is not sufficient.
We also need to build large-scale solar power projects. We should make every effort to build these projects on appropriate private land, but with the large number of applications pending approval it is inevitable that some solar projects will be built on public lands.
Simply put, we need a broad portfolio of solar power projects – big and small, urban and rural, on private and public lands – to meet our current goals. Therefore we need to encourage appropriate siting on both public and private lands.
The first round of solar projects on public lands offered key lessons: careful planning up front is essential to ensure projects are built in suitable places with the fewest environmentally harmful impacts. With these large-scale projects, it is always more difficult to “fix” a project proposed for a high conflict site, particularly once time and money have been invested.
If these lessons are adopted by federal and state regulators, the permitting process will be improved and the solar industry will benefit significantly: well-sited proposals will generate less controversy and less delay, resulting in faster permitting and speedier construction of projects.
Fortunately, Interior’s plan for solar development indicates that federal officials have taken the recommendations from stakeholders and the lessons from earlier projects seriously. Interior is taking substantial steps to expedite vitally important renewable energy development on sites with high solar potential that avoid sensitive natural areas and wildlife.
Large scale solar energy projects have real impacts and there may always be at least some opposition to such projects, even if they offer enormous societal benefits. But Salazar’s new policy strikes the right balance, gives us a fighting chance to reach our nation’s clean energy goals, and should be supported by solar developers, environmentalists, and the public at large.
Jon Foster is a director of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) in California. E2 is a national organization of business leaders who work on a non-partisan basis to support sound environmental policies that build economic prosperity.
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