SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time, federal land managers gave final approval Tuesday for the construction of two large solar installations on public lands that could power hundreds of thousands of homes with renewable energy.
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the projects in Southern California involve a square mile of glimmering solar panels near Victorville and a large array of satellite dish-like sun catchers covering about 10 square miles in the remote Imperial Valley.
Both could start transmitting electricity to the state grid by the end of 2011 or early 2012.
The approval came soon after California regulators passed new rules requiring utilities to derive a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, the most aggressive standards in the U.S.
At full capacity, the two facilities would generate power for up to 566,000 homes and create almost 1,000 new jobs, officials said.
"These projects are milestones in our focused effort to rapidly and responsibly capture renewable energy resources on public lands," Salazar said. "It is an historic day."
The announcement came about five years after solar developers began asking the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for rights to develop hundreds of solar plants on millions of acres of federally owned desert in the Southwest.
The bureau opened federally owned lands in 2005 to solar development, but an examination of records and interviews of officials by The Associated Press showed the program operated a first-come, first-served leasing system that quickly overwhelmed its small staff and enabled companies, regardless of solar industry experience, to squat on land without any real plans to develop it.
To expedite environmental review and bureaucratic red tape, the Department of the Interior identified 14 of the most promising solar projects among the more than 180 current permit applications covering about 23 million acres of federally owned desert in the Southwest.
Those 14 so-called "fast-track" projects alone would produce more than 6,000 megawatts, enough to power 4 million homes for a day at peak usage.
The newly approved permit for sites in California were the first in a series Salazar expected to issue before the end of the year. Final approval by 2011 qualifies projects for federal stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
"When I became secretary of the interior .... dozens of permit applications had languished," Salazar said. "There was no process for transforming ideas on paper to projects on the ground."
Land use and renewable energy experts said the BLM's initial mismanagement created a solar "land rush" that spurred lawsuits by environmental groups concerned about endangered species and rare plants.
However, the two projects that received green lights were applauded by groups that have been on the front lines challenging the location of solar power plants on public lands.
"We are supporting both projects," said Johanna Wald, a land use attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Together we think these projects represent a real downpayment on America's transition to the clean energy economy."
The project near Victorville is being developed by Chevron Energy Solutions.
The much larger Imperial Valley project by Arizona-based Tessera Solar will use a different technology — a vast array of sun-catching dishes that rotate to track the sun's movement and capture solar energy.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the state is on track to approve nine large solar plants by year's end.
"Our great partnership is helping to improve public health, grow our green economy, promote energy independence and strengthen our national security," the governor said in a statement.