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U.S. Solar Power: Interior Department Identifies Best Locations For Solar Energy Projects On Public Lands

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LOS ANGELES — A draft plan identifying prime areas for solar energy projects on public lands in the Southwest was released Thursday by the Interior Department in an effort to speed up development.

The draft identifies 24 so-called solar energy zones in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona that have the highest potential for solar development with the fewest environmental impacts. The plan announced during a conference call in Washington, D.C., also proposes to open an additional 21 million acres of land to potential solar development.

"The steps taken today help ensure that the United States will lead the world in energy technologies critical for meeting our energy goals and for sustaining economic growth," said Henry Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy with the Department of Energy.

Federal officials said there will be a 90-day public comment period and a series of public meetings in the Southwest, as well as Washington. The final report, which aims to reduce conflicts and delays later in the process, will be released in 2011, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The solar industry welcomed the draft report, which had been in the works since 2008.

"This announcement builds on the solar industry's momentum over the past year surpassing all of last year's growth through the third quarter, as well as the approval of the first eight utility-scale solar projects on public lands," said Rhone Resch, the head of the Solar Energy Industries Association. "To put this in perspective, 74,000 permits were issued for oil and gas drilling on public lands over the past twenty years."

Congress in 2005 gave the Interior Department a goal to approve 10,000 megawatts, or about 5 million homes' worth during peak hours, of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.

Although the Bureau of Land Management opened federally owned lands in 2005 to solar development, an examination of records and interviews of officials by The Associated Press showed the program operated a first-come, first-served leasing system that quickly overwhelmed its small staff.

The system also enabled companies, regardless of solar industry experience, to squat on land without any real plans to develop it.

Increasing the approval of solar projects has been a key goal for the Obama administration. The Interior Department identified 14 of the most promising solar projects on federally owned land on a list to be fast-tracked.

Federal officials predict that solar projects could one day contribute up to 24,000 megawatts of electricity – enough to keep 16 million homes powered at peak use.

Conservationists poring over the draft report's estimated 10,000 pages said they are pleased the federal government is finally outlining a program to more quickly approve good solar projects. The Department of Energy on Thursday also announced efforts to fund up to $50 million to test and demonstrate cutting-edge solar technologies.

Many environmentalists, like Alex Daue, renewable energy coordinator at The Wilderness Society, however, said they are concerned about the proposal to open additional acreage beyond the vetted zones.

"The opportunity here is to speed responsible development and limit impact," he said. "Why not focus on areas with the best chance of success and the least environmental impact?"

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