Environmentalists, industry analysts: BLM offers poor options for solar developments

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Arizona environmental groups, which agree that parts of Arizona’s vast public lands should be used for solar, are not happy with the BLM’s Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar energy generation.

According to the activists, the reason why the PEIS isn’t capable of appeasing environmentalists is the lack of a third, just right, option. Meanwhile the public comment period on the PEIS will close on March 17.

“Arizona has such a great solar resource, and we have a great opportunity for projects here,” said Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association President Michael Neary.

These projects also help attract manufacturing in Arizona, he said, adding that large-scale projects already attracted Suntech to locate a manufacturing facility in the state.

“Economic activity coming from building solar farms on public lands would definitely make it more attractive for manufacturers to locate here,” he said.

The PEIS has two options for use of Arizona’s public lands for large-scale renewable energy projects in Arizona. The "Solar Development Alternative" (SDA) could open up 4.5 million acres of public lands to solar wind and other renewable energy projects. The other option, the Solar Energy Zones Alternative, would open up only 13,000 acres for renewable energy development.

“It’s bizarre that the BLM is presenting such drastically different alternatives,” said Matt Skroch, director of the Arizona Wilderness Coalition.

The first, larger alternative is too big, Skroch said.

“4.5 million acres is ripe with potential conflict. Already we identified more than 500,000 acres of potential conflict with the Solar Development Alternative,” he said. “The smaller alternative is already too small to accommodate existing solar applications and foreseeable applications [of large-scale solar] in Arizona.”

The BLM expects that roughly 23,000 acres of public land will be used for solar development in Arizona.

The organization fully supports development of renewable large-scale energy production, Skroch said.

“Particularly in Arizona, where resources are exceptionally high, it would be silly for us not to seek out such projects,” he said. “Our organization feels there are public lands suitable for siting and building generation facilities. It comes down to identifying where, on public lands, the least amount of conflict would occur.”

The industry advocacy organization doesn’t have a position on the BLM PEIS, Neary said.

“We can understand the concerns of some who think some of the land may be environmentally sensitive,” he said. “We believe there are government lands that should be used for this.”

There is a third alternative proposed by the BLM; however, it’s not in the PEIS.

“We’re calling it zones plus. This is how it should have been presented in the beginning,” Skroch said. “We think they [i.e., the zones] have the potential for being expanded. And we think that should be guided by a separate process called the Restoration Design Project. It’s a state-based BLM process where they’re identifying degraded lands for solar development. We don’t understand why these two aren’t together.”

Pictured: In the year 2525, the sun will becomes so hot that solar generation will be more than ample to provide the country with 100 percent of its energy needs. Unfortunately, we'll all be melted by then. Image courtesy of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association.