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Obama Administration Releases Final Solar Energy Program

Helen O'Shea

Posted July 24, 2012

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The Departments of Interior and Energy today announced the long-awaited blueprint for solar energy development on public lands in six Western states.

The release of DOE’s and Interior’s final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for solar culminates a two-year public process that NRDC, fellow conservation groups, utilities and solar energy companies engaged in to advocate for a balanced, environmentally responsible national solar program.

The final solar program identifies 17 solar energy zones covering 285,000 square miles in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The area was cut down from an original 24 zones, some of which drew objections from wildlife and conservation groups, and generated more than 80,000 public comments.

Given that the initial draft PEIS was 10,000 pages long and its supplement stretched another 500-plus, it will likely take some time to closely review the final plan. We are hopeful that the plan will indeed be the lasting framework that we need for balancing our clean energy and natural resource protection goals.

As I blogged when the draft PEIS was released in 2010, this is Interior’s unique opportunity to build a solid program that’s “smart from the start—one that aims to site projects on public lands with the greatest possible care, NRDC has been able to support projects totaling more than 2,000 megawatts of clean power on public lands in California.

NRDC has long believed Interior should guide solar development to public land areas with low environmental and wildlife risk, high solar potential, and close to necessary infrastructure like transmission. We believe establishing such solar zones will ensure necessary solar projects are built faster and cheaper – and much better for the environment, solar developers, investors, and for consumers.

As my colleague Johanna Wald has repeatedly and eloquently noted, NRDC did not come to this place without great deliberation. Our decision to support solar development on public lands has been questioned by some, but we believe it is imperative that the nation transition quickly to a clean energy economy and this requires all the tools in our toolkit – from energy efficiency and rooftop solar to utility-scale solar projects. We believe this is the only way we have any hope of slowing the mounting damage from climate change, which poses one of the greatest threats to the same wildlife, wild lands and other resources the final PEIS must also strive to preserve. 

I’m getting ready to do a lot of late night reading in the next few weeks, and I’m hopeful that Interior’s final PEIS will establish a critically needed roadmap that provides a balanced approach to solar development to protect wildlife and critical lands while tackling the climate change challenge and moving our nation closer to meeting our clean energy goals.

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Janine BlaelochJul 24 2012 06:08 PM

Your late-night reading time might be better spent reading up on Distributed Generation and the potential to generate less-damaging, more efficient, cheaper, more democratic power at the local level and in the built environment rather than destroying our pubic lands and rewarding the same companies that have ruled the Fossil Fuel Era.. That NRDC has not promoted DG or the EPA's program for solar development on degraded and contaminated lands is a real shame.

Bighorn sheepJul 24 2012 08:51 PM

NRDC, can you please stop calling yourselves environmentalists...please? You are making a political football out of the unneeded Solar PEIS. You have been told by many people now about distributed generation and it would be very strange if you were not aware of the 15 million acres of brownfields that the EPA deemed suitable for solar energy. That info has been out there for years. Instead you support the end of several desert ecosystems in the desert. Your support for this BS will kill and displace desert tortoises, burrowing owls, desert ironwood trees, roadrunners, a host of rare plants, kangaroo rats, cactus wrens, etc, etc, etc, etc, and you are supporting this document which hails the destruction of 19 million acres of public lands. Is it because Robert F Kennedy is heavily invested in utility scale solar (BrightSource). Go smack yourselves for being such terrible conservationists. Your support for the "all of the above" energy policy and removal of habitat will heat up the planet. Shame on you....

southwest conservationistJul 24 2012 09:43 PM

So sad that the big "green" groups can't see their way clear to fight for wildlife and wilderness when it is democrats who want to destroy it. Shame on NRDC, National Audubon Society, Defenders, and the rest.

Adrienne AdamsJul 24 2012 10:06 PM

Destroying public lands for publicly-subsidized boutique renewable energy plants is not "tackling the climate change challenge." We cannot "tackle" climate change by destroying the only mechanism that nature has that allows species to adapt to a changing environment: biodiversity.

We can only "tackle" climate change by changing the way we live. Increasing the energy supply, whether fossil or renewable, only makes energy cheaper and easier to waste.

As long as Americans can waste fully half the energy we produce, as long as Americans think that limitless consumption is their birthright, we will continue our inexorable march towards disastrous climate change.

NRDC, as well as every other environmental organization, needs to start doing the hard work of addressing our patterns of overconsumption and waste. Stop pandering to the "Renewable" industry: it's Big Oil, Big Natural Gas, and Big Consumerism all rolled into one.

Mary Jane McEwanJul 24 2012 10:10 PM

The BLM and Department of Interior are betraying the public trust by encouraging the destruction of vast areas of public land. Solar projects belong on land that is already degraded and which is close to where the electric power is needed. These large scale solar projects are destroying the desert ecosystem. I cannot support the NRDC's endorsement of this destruction of public lands.

Laura ClevelandJul 24 2012 11:05 PM

Please stop destroying our beautiful deserts! They are a global treasure as anyone familiar with them will quickly attest.
I love solar energy but would vastly prefer to see the panels placed on developed areas, rather than destroy precious wild habitat. Desert habitats are very subtle—I'm thinking this must be why they have been chosen for things like bombing practice and destruction for solar farms.
Such destruction might cause dust storms and much worse. Also, no need to spend energy transporting the energy if it is created where it will be used.
Thanks very very much.

Walter FellerJul 24 2012 11:25 PM

We gain nothing by further destroying our fragile desert ecosystems with projects that support big industry like this. Solar belongs on rooftops.

Dr. NeotomaJul 25 2012 12:09 AM

By their utter and complete support of this needless corporate industrial rampage through our most pristine public wildlands, the NRDC (and TNC, Defenders, Wilderness Society, etc..) are finally coming clean for who they are and have become. I appreciate the honesty, finally. Gleeful support of the destruction of millions of highest quality ecosystem ( rather than defending it in lieu of ample alternatives that exist on pristine rooftops) will not go unpunished. Nature has the home field advantage, and will bat last.

Ken ParsonsJul 25 2012 12:32 AM

The Southwestern deserts are our last refuge from the burgeoning, air conditioned sprawl-cities of the Sunbelt and Southern California. Cashiering this last resource of open, wild, beautiful land... the parts that haven't yet been degraded by superhighways, transmission lines and other man-made scars in the name of "green" energy is a travesty. Then again, it seems most people, particularly those in power, can't equate "desert" with "green", "wilderness" or "habitat". As (if Ia remember correctly) Lemon Grove, CA's mayor said "there's nothing out there". Well... yes there is... and it is well worth saving. As a previous commenter posted "solar belongs on rooftops".

Ceal SmithJul 25 2012 01:39 AM

Targeting 285,000 SQUARE MILES of ecologically valuable public lands for massively destructive, remote industrial solar is neither "balanced" or "necessary" to combat climate change!!!

In fact the SEZ approach will divert resources and policy away from cheaper, faster, more efficient and equitable distributed solutions sited in the VAST urbanized landscape already devoted to human needs.

The solar PEIS underwrites yet another public resource grab by the same reckless energy industrialists bent on maintaining a power monopoly. NRDC, et al. would do far better to stand against Big Energy and help hasten, not obstruct the shift:

James Singmaster, III, Ph.D.Jul 25 2012 02:45 AM

Before our kids' get buried by our organic waste messes directly or get poisoned from germs and toxics or infected by germs due to escapes of those hazards from mishandling of those wastes, we better realize that we can make the wastes into a resource by using pyrolysis on them. I have posted several dozen comments on this NRDC blog and elsewhere over the last 10 years pointing out that biowastes are an already harvested biofuel supply usurping no land, water or fertilizer from food production. You can search my name to find comments on making biowastes including sewage solids into a forever renewable fuel supply while destroying germs, toxics and drugs so that they can not escape to pollute the biosphere.. Dr. J. Singmaster, III, Environmental Chemist,Ret, Ph.D. UCDavis, 75

Beale DabbsJul 25 2012 03:00 AM

The hypocrisy contained within the logic of utility scale green supporters is jaw dropping. Distributed rooftop solar makes far more sense environmentally and, in the long run, economically. 285,000 square miles, tossed off as if it's an insignificant number. It's not. And more, that's not the true number of land lost to this land grab. The spaces between solar fields and windmills will be considered unaffected land jet anyone can see that it's been irrevocably destroyed. Have a look at Tehachapi. At the Morongo Pass. The whole region bears scars, not each individual plot of land with windmills and such. It kills me that this has been driven from the left.

blowbackJul 25 2012 07:35 PM

Having drove through SW CA this past weekend on my way home from the southern Sierras on US 395S, while I don't agree with the Lemon Grove Mayor, in saying "there is nothing out there", I do think there is PLENTY of room for PV panels and other species to co-habitat. Please put all your efforts into stopping sprawl (which displaces many many more species) rather than fighting for the wren and roadrunners that have millions of acres to inhabit.

That said, I am 110% for DG and locally sourced roof-stop solar, real FITs, etc....over desert solar whales, but at least this land isn't open to be fracked, like millions of acres of the Country is.

Its interesting that the open land available for these solar plants is approximately 50% in CA (137K acres)...If you agree with Mr. McKibben's article in the recent RS, then we surely cannot wait for the IOUs and regulatory agency revolving door group to meet our RPS goals with DG...short of an Occupy-esque movement.

Shall we...

John OlmsteadJul 26 2012 12:43 AM

A long term solution to eliminating our dependance on fossil fuel will most likely require a mix of both DG and CG. Localized factors such as weather and shading mean that DG is not appropriate in every case and it is highly likely that we will always depend on some sort central generation to provide an even and stable supply of energy. Given the human and environmental risks of alternatives such as fracking, coal, and nuclear, it is essential that we look beyond our own back yards to develop and support real world solutions to our energy crisis. I applaud forward thinking efforts of the NRDC in making these solutions a reality.

Marco GallianoJul 27 2012 05:23 AM

I'm really shocked by this "plan".
In my opinion this is a giant step toward the distruction of a vast and beautiful land full of wildlife and history.
It's absolutely incredible that some "environmentalists" are in favour of this genocide.
Shame on them, shame on you.

Ruth NolanJul 27 2012 04:06 PM

The public lands of the California Desert & Southwestern U.S. are not for sale! Our deserts are celebrated internationally and rightly so: as a necessary cultural, historical, geographic region unparalleled anywhere in the world - except for the other five remaining, largely-intact ecosystems such as the Amazon rain forest. THIS IS A DISGRACE AND THE NRDC IS DOING NOTHING SHORT OF PIMPING OUR DESERT OUT FOR PROFIT - their own profit, too, might I add. Please, NRDC, can't you do better than this? Yes, you can. There are far better and truly sustainable ways for our country to move forward - responsibly - towards its renewable energy future! Save the desert. Don't rape the desert.

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