1 of 2
Associated Press
The Interior Department is looking at speeding up solar energy development zones in Utah and five other western states.

DENVER — Federal officials are refining their plan for speeding up solar energy development in zones of public lands in six western states, after receiving about 80,000 comments on the plan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday.

In December, the Interior Department released a draft identifying 24 solar development zones in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with the highest potential for large-scale solar development and the fewest environmental conflicts.

The Bureau of Land Management's deputy director of operations, Mike Pool, said Thursday he anticipates eliminating and reducing some zones but that he couldn't give specifics yet.

The thousands of comments and concerns on the proposal demonstrate high interest in what the Interior and Energy departments are doing on renewable energy, Salazar said.

"We've taken those comments into consideration. We are talking about institutionalizing a program on solar development that will outlast the Obama administration," he said in a teleconference with reporters.

"We're trying to establish a template that will provide a solid backbone for planning, for conservationists and developers alike," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.

A supplement to the December draft, to be released this fall, would improve information on biological and cultural resources within the zones so sensitive areas can be avoided. It also will include a more robust analysis of transmission and address criteria for identifying future solar energy zones, incentives for placing projects within the zones, and handling projects proposed just outside the zones, Pool said.

The supplement also will be open to public comments. A final decision is expected next year.

Separately, the BLM already is analyzing new potential solar zones as part of regional planning efforts such as the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the West Chocolate Mountain planning effort in California and the Arizona Restoration Design Energy Project.

Representatives of Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council said Salazar is taking a smart approach to encouraging "clean energy" projects while trying to find low-risk places for them.

However, Sportsmen for Responsible Energy Development, representing hunters and anglers, said its members are concerned that hunters, anglers and the outdoors industry could be affected if solar projects shrink wildlife habitat and water. It said its members can offer expertise in helping choose proper sites for projects.

Also Thursday, Salazar announced approval of two solar projects and a transmission line in California, plus a wind project in Oregon, that involve roads, rights of way or transmission lines across public land. Together the projects would provide 550 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 185,000 to 380,000 homes — and create about 1,300 construction jobs, he said.

Those projects are the 250-megawatt Abengoa Mojave Solar Project in southern California; CSOLAR Development LLC's 200-megawatt solar project in Imperial County in California; the West Butte Wind Power project in Deschutes and Crook counties in Oregon, where up to 52 turbines that could produce up to 104 megawatts would be built; and a transmission line by Southern California Edison that would serve proposed solar energy projects, including nine in California and Nevada.

The BLM also plans to begin environmental review of two proposed wind projects and a solar energy project in California that would generate more than 370 megawatts, Salazar said.