Agencies unveil renewable energy roadmap

A draft environmental analysis the Energy and Interior departments unveiled Thursday calls for creating a solar energy program that would standardize the authorization process and stipulate mandatory design features for such development on federal land in the West.

The proposal, which will be published in the Dec. 17 Federal Register, targets specific zones for solar energy development on federal land in six states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. Energy and Interior officials on Thursday said the analysis identified those areas as offering the greatest potential for energy efficiency at a lower cost to the environment.

"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," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said. The government will publish its final report on solar energy development in the West in fall 2011, he added.

Solar energy, simply put, is energy from the sun's rays that can be converted into heat, electricity and other forms of power. Officials expect renewable energy projects, such as the one focused on solar energy development out West, not only decrease the country's dependence on oil and boost energy efficiency, but also create jobs. In March 2009, Salazar pledged to make renewable energy a priority of the Obama administration -- his first order as secretary created the task force that produced the draft environmental analysis.

Under the proposal, the solar energy zones promote a focused, uniform system for development projects and "allow for a more efficient permitting and siting process," for companies and agencies, an Interior statement noted.

"We will still entertain other applications outside of the solar development zones," said Henry Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary for Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. "But it's more of an incentive for companies to focus attention in these areas." The designated development areas comprise 22 million acres of federal land.

Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Abbey said the analysis process should help establish a specific framework for evaluating renewable energy projects. "I believe this announcement will help reduce potential for litigation and delays of future projects," he said.

After the proposal is published in the Federal Register, there will be a 90-day comment period during which the government will host 14 meetings out West and in Washington.

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