Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Monday that close to 700,000 acres of federal land in Western states, including Utah, will be set aside as solar energy study areas to be evaluated for their suitability for large-scale solar energy production.

Areas in Utah designated under the initiative include Beaver County's Milford Flats South and Wah Wah Valley and Iron County's Escalante Valley.

As part of the plan, the Bureau of Land Management will segregate the study areas from new mining claims and any other third-party action while it conducts an environmental review expected to be completed late next year.

Salazar said the West's two dozen areas under evaluation could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.

"With coordinated environmental studies, good land-use planning and zoning and priority processing, we can accelerate responsible solar energy production that will help build a clean energy economy for the 21st century," he said.

The initiative involves 24 tracts of BLM land in six Western states.

The objective is to provide landscape-scale planning and zoning for solar projects on BLM lands in the West, allowing a more efficient process for permitting and siting responsible solar development.

Those areas selected would be available for projects capable of producing 10 or more megawatts of electricity for distribution to customers through the transmission grid system. Companies that propose projects on that scale in areas already approved for this type of development would be eligible for priority processing.

The BLM has received about 470 renewable energy project applications. They include 158 active solar applications, covering 1.8 million acres, with a projected capacity to generate 97,000 megawatts of electricity. That's enough to power 29 million homes, the equivalent of 29 percent of the nation's household electrical consumption.

The BLM will continue to process existing renewable energy applications, both within and outside the solar energy study areas. Among the pending applications are two in Utah — one for a geothermal project with potential to generate 69 megawatts of energy and a wind project with potential to generate 80 megawatts of energy.

The wind project, which has an environmental analysis pending, is being done by Evergreen Wind in the Cedar City area and involves close to 5,000 acres of BLM land, 900 acres of state land and a little more than 1,200 acres of private land, said Interior spokesman David Quick.

The solar energy study areas — located in Utah, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico and outlined in maps to be published in the Federal Register today — encompass about 670,000 acres. Only lands with "excellent" solar resources, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of public lands were considered for solar energy study areas, according to a press release.

Sensitive lands, wilderness and other high conservation value lands as well as lands with conflicting uses were excluded.

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An ongoing federally funded environmental evaluation of potential solar energy development on public lands in six Western states known as the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, will be expanded to include an in-depth analysis of the potential impacts of utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in the 24 solar energy study areas.

The expanded evaluation, a collaborative effort with the Department of Energy, will allow the BLM to take a close look at each study area to determine where it makes sense to develop large-scale solar projects without adverse environmental impacts.

Companies proposing solar energy projects in designated areas would be able to "tier" to this study, using it as part of their environmental impact studies for site specific projects, which are required by the National Environmental Policy Act.