SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of environmental groups are challenging the Department of Interior's establishment of solar energy zones in six southwestern states, including Utah, asserting the federal government failed to contemplate permitting large-scale utlity projects on already developed lands.
"We don't have to use pristine desert if there are sufficient (alternatives) that could achieve the same goals as these large projects proposed on public lands," said Chris Krupp, an attorney for Western Lands Project in Seattle.
Krupp is representing that organization, as well as the Western Watersheds Project and the Desert Protective Council, in a suit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in California.
"The groups are strongly in favor of renewable energy and clean energy," Krupp said, but stressed the Interior Department did not consider facilitating the establishment of utility-scale projects in such venues as rooftops or run-down, industrialized areas known as "brownfields."
He said the groups, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, called for analysis of these alternatives during comment periods, but they were not considered.
Initially, the Interior Department pursued the establishment of solar energy zones on 285,000 acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. In October, however, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed off on an expanded solar plan the groups contend keeps open 19 million acres for possible large-scale projects.
"The administration is opting to needlessly turn multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones," said Janine Blaeloch, also with the Western Lands Project. "Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas and on degraded sites, not our public lands."
Utah's solar zones include 6,480 acres in the Milford Flats area and 6,097 acres in the Wah Wah Valley, both in Beaver County.
While rural Utah may have few already-developed locations suitable for large-scale rooftop projects or swaths of degraded land, Krupp said it makes more sense to foster the installation of big solar projects in California, where the power would likely be exported.
"Why not produce the power there rather than scrape the desert of Utah?" he asked.
The groups say the agency's decision ignores the value of southwestern desert ecosystems.
"Our desert species and ecological communities are already severely stressed by urbanization, roads, transmission lines, mining, military uses, recreation, grazing and other impacts,” said Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council. "Interior's plan intensifies the potential for permanent loss of all the things people cherish about the desert — uncluttered vistas, dark night skies and deep peace and quiet.”
Krupp said the United States would be well-advised to take some lessons from Germany, which has about as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined.
"Other nations such as Germany have really gotten behind distributed (on-site) generation of power," he said, adding that Germany only gets a little more sunlight on an annual basis than Seattle.
"It at least seems worthy of study," Krupp said.
The suit contends the Interior Department violated environmental laws when it rendered its final decision on solar energy development impacting the six states. It asks the judge to set aside the decision and reimburse the groups for legal costs.