On July 24, 2012, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it will publish the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (“Solar PEIS”) for solar energy development in six southwestern states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.  The Solar PEIS is a major step ahead in the permitting of utility-scale solar energy on public lands in the West.   

The Solar PEIS will establish solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission and with the fewest resource conflicts and incentives for development within those zones.  The roadmap set forth in the Solar PEIS will make for faster, more streamlined permitting of large-scale solar projects on public lands.  The focus of the Solar PEIS is on Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) lands that are most suitable for solar energy development and identifies 17 Solar Energy Zones (“SEZs”), totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands, as priority areas for utility-scale solar development.  The Solar PEIS also notes the potential for additional zones through ongoing and future regional planning processes and allows for utility-scale solar development on approximately 19 million acres in variance areas lying outside of identified SEZs. 

In total, the Solar PEIS estimates a total development of 23,700 megawatts from the 17 zones and the variance areas, enough renewable energy to power 7 million American homes.  According to the Department of Interior’s website, other key elements of the Final Solar PEIS include:

  • A process for industry, the public and other interested stakeholders to propose new or expanded zones;
  • Strong incentives for development within zones, including faster and easier permitting, improved mitigation strategies, and economic incentives;
  • Protection of natural and cultural resources by excluding 78 million acres from solar energy development;
  • Identification of best practices for solar energy development to ensure the most environmentally responsible development and delivery of solar energy; and
  • Establishment of a framework for regional mitigation plans and a strategy for monitoring and adaptive management.

The forthcoming July 27, 2012 Federal Register Notice of Availability for the Solar PEIS will begin a 30-day protest period, after which the Secretary of the Interior may consider adoption of the Solar PEIS through a Record of Decision. The BLM released the Draft Solar PEIS in December 2010 and issued a Supplement to the Draft Solar PEIS in October 2011.