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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkEditorials | Environmental 

U.S. Drafts Environmental Proposal for Solar Energy
email this pageprint this pageemail usSarah McBride - Reuters
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December 17, 2010

Los Angeles - The Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy have drafted an environmental study that identifies public lands best suited for solar development in six western states.

The idea is to make sure planned solar plants go on sites that aren't just sunny and flat, but have minimal environmental and cultural resources.

Crafting a framework for solar development is taking on increasing importance as the West, particularly California, encounters something of a solar boom.

While fostering renewable energy has become an important federal and state goal, proposed plants are meeting increasing resistance from groups that believe the plants will do irreparable harm to threatened or endangered plants and animals.

Moving forward with the initiative will help the country "lead in the global clean energy economy," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement. Proper planning "will help us site solar projects in the right places, and reduce conflicts and delays," added Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Clear policy is trailing solar development. In the last three months, the Interior Department has approved eight utility-scale solar projects through its fast-track initiative that sought to approve plants by year end.

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

The government wants to establish "Solar Energy Zones" in those states that would offer streamlined permitting and siting for solar projects. The lands come from Solar Energy Study Areas identified last year.

Of about 120 million acres administered by the federal government in the six states, officials have determined about 22 million acres are suitable for solar use. However, the government believes only about 214,000 acres will eventually be developed by solar companies.

Some of the plants already approved for public lands have run into trouble with environmentalists or other groups. On Wednesday, a judge granted the Quechan Indian tribe's request for an injunction to block a 709 megawatt plant - enough to power more than 140,000 homes - in California's Imperial Valley near the Mexican border.

The plant, under development by NTR's Tessera Solar, is slated for lands where the Indian tribe has burial and religious sites.

"These projects are really, really complex," said Helen O'Shea, deputy director of the Western Renewable Energy Project at the National Resources Defense Council. The projects will be able to avoid key historic and environmental areas "if we have good vetting of zones in the first place," she said.

The government will hold 14 meetings and give the public 90 days to comment on the report.

(Editing by Phil Berlowitz)

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