SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's 17,700 acres of federally-proposed solar energy zones represent the nation's "sweet spots" where development of large scale utility projects will occur, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday.
A supplemental draft environmental statement has been released with modifications made as the result of more than 80,000 public comments received on the plan to designate suitable solar energy zones in six western states. The zones, which are also in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, include 285,000 acres of federal land, or 445 square miles.
Salazar also hosted a series of meetings to solicit input, and Bureau of Land Management teams met with those in industry, local government, potentially-impacted Native American tribes and environmental and conservation groups.
Utah's three zones are:
• 6,614 acres in Escalante Valley
• 6,480 acres in Milford Flats
• 6,097 acres in Wah Wah Valley
The draft document said that under a "reasonably foreseeable development scenario," an estimated 1,219 megawatts of solar power could be produced on BLM land in Utah, and 406 megawatts of power produced on non-BLM land.
In a Thursday teleconference to explain some of the modifications to the assessment, Deputy Secretary David Hayes said the designation of such zones is about siting large projects in the right places and offering incentives for developers to choose those spots.
The idea is to help fast-track the permits for the projects by first thoroughly identifying any of the potential environmental impacts or socio-economic concerns that would have to be mitigated. That front-end work will save both the agency and industry time, Hayes added.
"The concept is that it is a clearer, easier path for developers to proceed inside the zones, which have been essentially test-driven in identifying potential conflicts," he said. "There will be more certainty in putting a project in these zones."
In Utah's example, major environmental groups such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, The Wilderness Society, and HEAL Utah endorsed the zones. The National Park Service expressed concern about the Milford Flats zone potentially impacting 12 percent of the Utah prairie dog's habitat, and wildlife agencies want assurance that any projects also avoid nesting habitat of the greater sage grouse.
The Milford Flats zone, as well, already includes two energy pipelines, two roads, power lines and telecommunication lines with right-of-ways that would have to be coordinated, according to the document.
The draft document, described by Salazar as a revolutionary effort, enhances the progress made in the last two years in the development of renewable energy resources.
Salazar said when he first took the job in 2009 as Interior secretary, hundreds of applications for solar energy projects were languishing at the agency and no projects had been issued a permit.
"We turned the old system on its head," he said. "We cut the red tape without cutting corners."
As a result, he said, 22 renewable energy projects that include solar, wind and geothermal have been issued permits for operation on public lands. He said 13 of those projects are solar, producing nearly 5,000 megawatts of power — enough for 1.5 million homes.
A potential of 14 other projects are on tap to be permitted next year, with 79 applications pending review. None of the projects are in Utah.
"It is nothing short of revolutionary," he said. "It's real progress and we're making believers out of skeptics."
Comments are being accepted on the environmental review for 90 days. They may be submitted online at http://solareis.anl.gov. Written comments also may be sent to Solar Energy Supplement, Argonne National Laboratory, 9700 S. Cass Avenue—EVS/240, Argonne, Illinois 60439.
In addition, comments may be submitted at public meetings scheduled for Las Vegas on Nov. 30; Phoenix on Dec. 1; El Centro, Calif., on Dec. 7; and Palm Desert, Calif., on Dec. 8.