David A. Goldberg and Daniel S. Feinberg

The Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) has extended the public comment period for the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (“Draft Solar PEIS”) by thirty days to April 16, 2011.  The Draft Solar PEIS should be of interest to any developer seeking to build utility-scale solar energy projects or associated transmission infrastructure on public lands in the Southwestern United States, as the adoption of any of the study’s proposed plans of action could dramatically influence solar energy development on BLM-administered lands.

The Draft Solar PEIS is a detailed study released in December 2010 by BLM and the Department of Energy that evaluates the environmental, economic and social impacts of solar energy development on BLM-managed public lands in the Southwest.  As part of the study, BLM identified 24 “solar energy zones” (“SEZs”) that it deemed most suitable for environmentally sound, utility-scale solar energy development in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.  The study addressed three alternatives for managing utility-scale solar energy development: a solar energy development program alternative and a solar energy zone alternative (collectively, the “action” alternatives), and a no-action alternative.

While the selection of either “action” alternative would likely lead to the creation of a more streamlined authorization process for solar energy projects, both “action” alternatives could lead to the adoption of more stringent and defined authorization and mitigation standards over limited areas of BLM-administered land, potentially constraining demand for solar energy development on public lands in the future.

The study’s Preferred Alternative, the solar energy development program alternative, would establish a Solar Energy Program that would standardize and streamline the authorization process, as well as establish mandatory design features for solar energy development.  The Solar Energy Program would exclude from development categories of land failing to meet a certain set of requirements designed to ensure environmentally sound development.  Under the Preferred Alternative, 21,581,154 of the 98,732,220 acres of BLM-administered lands would be available for right-of-way applications.  However, the Alternative would prioritize solar energy and associated transmission infrastructure development within the proposed SEZs, an area totaling 677,384 acres across the six states.

Under the solar energy zone alternative, BLM would adopt the same set of authorization policies and design features as proposed under the solar energy development program alternative but would restrict solar energy development only to lands within the 677,384 acres of proposed SEZs.  Under the no-action alternative, solar energy development would continue as-is, with projects considered on an individual, case-by-case basis throughout the entirety of BLM-administered lands.

Solar developers should be encouraged to read and comment on the Draft Solar PEIS before the April 16, 2011 deadline.  BLM’s preferred method of commenting on the Draft Solar PEIS is by written submission using the online form at http://solareis.anl.gov.  Comments can also be sent to: Solar Energy Draft Programmatic EIS, Argonne National Laboratory, 9700 S. Cass Avenue – EVS/240, Argonne, Illinois 60439.