The US Department of Interior (DOI) announced this week that they have identified twenty four sites in the western United States to be considered for utility scale solar plants. The sites are all on Federal land administered by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM). What’s interesting about this announcement is that all sites are being removed from consideration for other uses and that there will be a single environmental review for all twenty four sites. According to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, if the sites are approved and plants are actually built, the plants could produce almost 30 percent of current US residential electricity use.
One of the biggest issues with the process to get approval for utility plants (both fossil fuel and alternative power plants) is the confusing and conflicting regulations that exist at the federal, state, and local levels. The new program, called a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement eliminates some of the issue by pre-identifying the sites and performing the environmental impact assessment all at once. If the sites are approved, then Interior will start taking applications from companies to actually build the plants.
The twenty four sites, which cover about 670,000 acres across six western states (Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah – you can look at the maps here), all met certain criteria. The sites all receive more than 6.5kWh/m2 of sunlight energy per day, have less than a 5 degree slope, and are near existing roads and transmission equipment. Several other sites were eliminated from consideration because they were considered endangered species habitats, wildlife corridors, recreation areas, or were subject to Indian tribal concerns.