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Feds revisit program for solar development

DENVER – Federal officials are refining their plan for speeding up solar energy development in zones of public lands in six western states, after receiving about 80,000 comments on the plan, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Thursday.

In December, the Interior Department released a draft identifying 24 solar development zones in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona with the highest potential for large-scale solar development and the fewest environmental conflicts.

The Bureau of Land Management’s deputy director of operations, Mike Pool, said Thursday he anticipates eliminating and reducing some zones but that he couldn’t give specifics yet.

The thousands of comments and concerns on the proposal demonstrate high interest in what the Interior and Energy departments are doing on renewable energy, Salazar said.

“We’ve taken those comments into consideration. We are talking about institutionalizing a program on solar development that will outlast the Obama administration,” he said in a teleconference with reporters.

“We’re trying to establish a template that will provide a solid backbone for planning, for conservationists and developers alike,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.

A supplement to the December draft, to be released this fall, would improve information on biological and cultural resources within the zones so sensitive areas can be avoided. It also will include a more robust analysis of transmission and address criteria for identifying future solar energy zones, incentives for placing projects within the zones, and handling projects proposed just outside the zones, Pool said.

The supplement also will be open to public comments. A final decision is expected next year.

Separately, the BLM already is analyzing new potential solar zones as part of regional planning efforts such as the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the West Chocolate Mountain planning effort in California and the Arizona Restoration Design Energy Project.