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Solar Energy on Public Lands


01/28/2010


Solar Panels in the desertToday I testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on the importance of solar energy development on our public lands. You can read the full testimony here, but I’d like to share some of the highlights with you. 

During the first year of his Administration, President Obama has made the development of renewable energy in America one of his highest priorities. We can no longer afford the risks that spending billions of dollars each year on imported oil poses to our national and financial security. America’s abundant natural resources offer the potential to create new jobs and a more stable future.

For the first time ever, the Department of the Interior is exploring our deserts and plains for their vast clean energy potential. As a Department which oversees 20 percent of the nation’s lands we have huge solar potential; the public lands in the deserts of the Southwest near the great cities of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Phoenix contain an estimated 2,300 gigawatts of energy. While countries like China, Spain, and Germany pursue the manufacturing and deployment of renewable energy, America has the ingenuity and vast sun-filled public lands to become a global leader in solar energy development. Exciting technologies that turn sunlight into electricity- “concentrated solar thermal” and photovoltaic cells- hold the promise of new jobs and lower costs as they become even more technologically advanced.

Renewable energy was the focus of my first Secretarial Order in March 2009, which cut red tape and sought to facilitate the production, development, and delivery of renewable energy on public lands. We have opened Renewable Energy Coordination Offices in California, Nevada, Wyoming and Arizona and established teams in six other states that aim to expedite the necessary reviews of ready‐to‐go clean energy projects and the permitting of transmission-related projects on public lands. I have visited solar energy projects in the East and the West, and met employees of innovative energy companies who are developing next-generation materials such as thin-film solar photovoltaic modules. Our Department is working with these entrepreneurs to ensure that solar development remains at the forefront of our renewable energy agenda.

This past year we have prioritized identifying public lands’ suitability for the large-scale production of renewable energy, both from an environmental and resource perspective. Last June, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and I announced the identification of 1,000 square miles, including 24 tracts of Bureau of Land Management-administered land, in the West as Solar Energy Study Areas. These Study Areas alone have the potential to generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity, enough to power millions of American homes.

Along with the Department of Energywe are preparing a Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, which will identify which solar energy projects on Southwestern public lands seem to have the highest potential for utility-scale energy development. So far the BLM has identified approximately 23 million acres with solar energy potential. In the Southwest we have also announced the “fast-tracking” of 34 promising renewable energy projects, which could potentially be cleared for approval by December 2010. This would make them eligible for economic stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. We have placed fourteen solar energy projects on the fast track, located in three states and using different solar energy technologies including solar engine, parabolic trough, and power tower. All are currently undergoing detailed environmental impact assessment, and if approved, could produce 5,000-6,000 megawatts of new capacity and tens of thousands of jobs. In California, Governor Schwarzenegger and I signed a Memo of Understanding to expedite the siting, reviewing, approving and permitting of renewable energy projects on public lands in California.

We are redoubling our efforts to evaluate and approve existing applications for solar energy projects. The BLM is currently processing approximately 128 applications for utility-scale solar projects that involve around 77,000 megawatts and 1.2 million acres of public land. We believe that of the solar projects currently proposed in California, Arizona, and New Mexico over 5,750megawatts of new capacity could be permitted for construction by the end of this year. The development of all these projects has the potential to power roughly 1.4 million homes.

Solar and other renewable energy resources are often located in remote areas, and will require new transmission capacity to bring this clean energy to population centers. The Department has already identified and designated more than 5,000 miles of transmission corridors on federal lands. We are processing more than 30 applications for major transmission corridor right-of-ways, with 7 applications in Idaho, California and Nevada that could potentially “fast track” the permitting of over 1,000 transmission miles this year. Moreover, nine federal agencies including the Department have signed a Memorandum of Understanding committed to coordinating the expedition of siting and permitting electric transmission projects on federal lands. 

By facilitating energy transmission, reviewing current projects, and uncovering potential new sites, last year the Department made great strides towards harnessing solar power on public lands. I am proud of our achievements, and will continue to make the creation of a secure and responsible energy future a top Department priority.