In the zones


You’ve got to hand it to Ken Salazar: Never before has an Interior Secretary been so methodically driven to make U.S. public lands safe for renewable energy development. Unlike the men and women who have held his position in previous administrations, especially the last one, Salazar has put solar, wind and their attendant transmission needs on their own pedestal, right up there with oil and gas drilling.

Up until now, however, the solar projects permitted in the last three months – eight nine so far, to generate nearly 4,000 megawatts – were all put in motion while renewable energy development was still in Wild West mode, without any focused discussion about responsible siting of utility-scale solar. That wasn’t working for anybody – not for developers wanting certainty, not for environmentalists sinking their funds into litigation to protect what they thought were already protected landscapes.

Thursday afternoon, Interior released the first documented evidence that Salazar is making good on his promise to rectify that situation: An environmental impact study from the Bureau of Land Management establishing “solar energy zones” (SEZs) in six Western states, places where the sun shines hard and rare desert species won’t be unduly disturbed by concentrating solar power towers, mirrors and the bulldozers that clear their way. It comes just as Congress managed to extend renewable energy grants in the tax bill, preserving precious funds for start-ups too new for tax credits to matter.

And you could tell that environmentalists wanted to be happy about it; really they did. But, well, they’re not. At least not yet.

“We’re very supportive of the BLM creating solar energy zones,” said Barbara Boyle, senior representative for the Sierra Club in California. “It’s important not to fragment the landscape by scattering solar all over the desert; it’s much better to cluster projects.”

The problem is that the draft solar energy study doesn’t do much to make that happen.

“They neglected to create any meaningful incentives to cajole developers into those zones as opposed to developing just anywhere,” Boyle says.

And at least two of those zones, Boyle says, shouldn’t even be in there at all.

The BLM’s eagerly awaited “Solar Energy Development Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement” goes back to December 2008, when the agency set out to do “an overarching review of solar development on our public lands,” says BLM’s head of energy policy, Ray Brady. Salazar in March of 2009 ordered the effort better focused and funded, allowing BLM to staff up and focus on what Brady calls “a higher level of environmental review.”

The study certainly does that: Included in the descriptions of the 24 zones BLM settled on in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Colorado and Utah are frank descriptions of exactly what solar development would do to the land. The largest of the areas, Riverside East, includes 162,317 acres of mostly “undeveloped and rural” land, where “utility-scale solar energy development would introduce a new and discordant land use.” Solar development in a 25,000-acre slice of Nevada’s Amargosa Valley would adversely affect “wilderness characteristics on 19,406 acres of designated wilderness within the Death Valley National Park,” and impede access to the park from the south and west.

Still, “a significant part” of the Riverside East site “is a good place for solar development,” Boyle says. And while a project in the works by developer Solar Millennium in the Amargosa Valley has stirred up controversy about dust and water use, at least half the community in Beatty, Nevada regularly voices support for energy development there, provided it brings jobs.

Few conservationists can say the same, however, for two other sites that linger on the BLM’s latest map: The 110,000 acre Iron Mountain zone, which lies between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, and the 24,000 acre Pisgah site a little farther north. In both areas, “there’s a high concentration of desert species and important movement corridors,” Boyle says. “The environmental community as a whole does not agree with BLM’s decision” to include them.

Just as alarming is the study’s inclusion of a “preferred alternative” that zones a whole 21 million acres in the southwestern states for solar energy development -- a puzzling option, considering that the ostensible point of the study was to steer development toward specific and appropriate lands. Even those 21 million acres may not be the end of the story: In a conference call on Thursday with Salazar and a rep from the Energy Department, BLM director Bob Abbey reinforced the notion that the agency has drawn no hard boundaries around the zones; they’re only there, he said, for the sake of efficiency. “We would still entertain applications on areas outside of the solar development zones,” Abbey said. “We understand the need for flexibility.”

That, Boyle says, “is ridiculous. It defies logic. They haven’t even tied how much land they’re proposing for development to the amount of solar they need to tie us to a renewable energy future." Even an ambitious solar energy slice of the carbon-cutting pie should require no more than 200,000 acres, Boyle argues. And not all of that has to be BLM land -- thousands of acres of degraded private land are already in play.

The public has until March 17, 2011 to plow through the study – which tops 10,000 pages, without appendices – and submit comments. But it’s already pretty clear what the gist of the enviros' comments will be.

“We’re really commending BLM for taking this approach of looking for priority areas,” says Alex Daue, renewable energy coordinator at The Wilderness Society in Colorado. “But right now those zones are just lines on a map. They need to be more than that.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a High Country News contributing editor. She writes from California.

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