Environment & Science

Federal government poised to decide on 'road map' for large-scale solar on public lands as public comment ends

Solar panels in the Mojave Desert
Solar panels in the Mojave Desert

The federal government is wrapping up a process of collecting public views on national guidelines for siting large-scale solar projects on public lands. Friday, the comment period for the solar programmatic environmental impact statement closes.

That means federal land managers are poised to decide where to encourage solar energy in desert areas near Riverside and in other western states. Later this year, desert conservationists, scientists and renewable energy companies who monitor public lands policies anticipate the release of the final plan to guide these decisions in the west.

The decision will come in the form of a programmatic environmental impact statement — a sort of road map for public lands managers overseeing designated zones in California and other states.

“Really what’s happening is we’re having a national level discussion about how we’re going to move forward with renewable energy on public lands in the west," says David Lamfrom, who works on California desert issues for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Renewable energy companies and desert advocates have offered conflicting views of a national program that aims to put renewable energy on the grid. About 14 months ago, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the government would develop this programmatic EIS.

“This proposal lays out the next phase of President Obama’s strategy for rapid and responsible development of renewable energy on America’s public lands,” Secretary Salazar said. “This analysis will help renewable energy companies and federal agencies focus development on areas of our public lands that are best suited for large-scale solar development. Our early ‘Smart from the Start’ planning will help us site solar projects in the right places, and reduce conflicts and delays at later stages of the development process.”

The federal Interior Department has proposed 17 areas in six states where solar projects are preferred. An emerging idea would grant variances so that companies could work outside those zones.

Lamfrom doesn’t like that. “The government and industry are both very interested in having flexibility," he says, “and that means having additional lands that are open that applications can be put on.”

The largest zone in the forthcoming federal road map for solar is in eastern Riverside County, between Blythe and Joshua Tree, an area roughly 147,000 acres in size. Last fall, the federal government shrank the area proposed for that zone, by about a quarter of that size.

Federal managers argue science does and should inform decisions about what land to disturb with construction, but Lamfrom counters that companies and the government have placed some fast-tracked projects on sensitive public land in California.

“The Mojave and Colorado deserts are two of the most misunderstood places on earth,” says Lamfrom. “Believe it or not, we don’t even have a full map of the vegetation in the Mojave Desert.”

Lamfrom says he believes the Interior Department can balance energy with desert protection. “I don’t think that saying solar should go in zones means we’re saying no to solar energy. I think we’re saying we care about our renewable energy future and our landscapes.”