Federal government to refine solar energy development zones

LOS ANGELES Thu Jul 14, 2011 3:29pm EDT

U.S. Secret Service agents walk among the thousands of solar panels generating electricity used at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009 during a visit by President Obama. REUTERS/Jason Reed

U.S. Secret Service agents walk among the thousands of solar panels generating electricity used at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009 during a visit by President Obama.

Credit: Reuters/Jason Reed

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. officials said on Thursday they would eliminate or reduce the size of some areas the government had deemed best for solar power development in six western states in response to tens of thousands of public comments.

The refinements will reflect a deeper analysis of the areas' access to transmission lines as well as improved information on wildlife that could be affected by development of large-scale solar plants, officials from the Department of the Interior said on a conference call.

The changes come seven months after the Obama administration drafted an environmental study that identified 24 solar energy zones in Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.

That study received 80,000 comments from the public, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

"Those comments were instructive to us, and we've taken those into consideration as we refine this blueprint for the future," Salazar said.

Crafting a framework for the expansion of solar energy is taking on increasing importance as western parts of the United States, particularly California, encounter a solar boom.

California aims to generate a third of its electricity from renewable energy such as solar and wind by 2020, but development of large solar plants on undisturbed lands has been greeted with dissent from conservationists who say the habitats of rare species such as the desert tortoise will be harmed.

Environmentalists cheered the government's move on Thursday, saying it would help concentrate solar power developments in a few key areas and lessen the overall impact on the environment.

"We don't want these projects just scattered across the landscape," said Barbara Boyle, a senior representative for the Sierra Club in California. "It may not be perfect, but it will be a lot better than what we were working from now."

Salazar and other officials said it was too soon to say which zones would be eliminated or reduced.

The Bureau of Land Management will publish a supplemental study this autumn which will be followed by a 90-day public comment period, Deputy Director Mike Pool said. The final study with the new and refined zones is expected to be published in the summer of 2012.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Dale Hudson)

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