U.S. refines plans for Western solar energy zones

Thu Oct 27, 2011 3:20pm EDT

(Reuters) - U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Thursday outlined new proposed guidelines for siting solar energy developments on public lands, reducing the number of acres deemed best suited for such projects but offering companies incentives to place their power plants there.

The plan's aim is to concentrate development of solar projects in sunny, flat areas near transmission lines but with minimal threats to wildlife and cultural resources.

The revised plan reduces the number of so-called solar energy zones in six western states to 17 from the 24 proposed in the first version of the roadmap released in December of last year.

The proposal affects public land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

The zones' total acreage, however, was slashed to 285,000 acres from 677,000. The government believes only about 214,000 acres will eventually be developed by solar companies.

"These 445 square miles of zones are where the sweet spots are, so that's where development will be driven," Salazar said on a conference call with reporters.

The changes were made after the Interior and Energy departments received more than 80,000 comments on their original plan from solar energy developers, conservationists and others.

Solar developers will be encouraged to site their projects within the zones because the work of identifying potential threats to wildlife and other resources has already been done, Interior officials said.

"It's a clearer, easier path for developers to proceed inside zones," David Hayes, deputy secretary of the interior, said on the call. "Why? They have essentially been somewhat test-driven in terms of identifying potential conflicts."

Solar energy and transmission projects sited in solar energy zones will also enjoy faster and easier permitting, officials said.

Developers will be able to site their projects outside the zones, but will likely face a longer permitting process, Salazar said.

Conservationists applauded the move.

"This is going to make a difference in terms of reducing the energy sprawl, and it will really put solar in places where the infrastructure is there and where the conflicts with the environmental and cultural resources are minimized," said Barb Boyle, a senior representative with the Sierra Club in California.

The public will have another opportunity to comment on the plan before a final draft is issued, the Department said. The 90-day comment period will begin October 28.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom)