Las Vegas » The federal government's top land steward said Monday that the United States will fast-track efforts to build solar power generating facilities on public space in six Western states.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he has signed an order setting aside more than 1,000 square miles of public land for two years of study and environmental reviews to determine where solar power stations should be built.
"We are putting a bull's-eye on the development of solar energy on our public lands," Salazar said during an announcement with U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, in a courtyard shaded by a solar power array at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Salazar and Reid, the Democratic Senate majority leader, invoked President Barack Obama's call for rapid development of renewable energy.
"We hear a lot about doing something about the environment," Reid said. "That's what this is all about. We want to not be dependent on foreign oil. This will make America a more secure nation."
Salazar vowed to have 13 "commercial-scale" solar projects under construction by the end of 2010 on lands that have what he called excellent solar energy potential and limited conflicts with wildlife, other natural resources and land users. He set a goal for the projects to produce a total of 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.
He said the federal Bureau of Land Management plans to spend $22 million conducting studies of 24 tracts in the 670,000 acres of property he set aside in Nevada, Arizona, California, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Posters displayed Monday showed some of the sites in southern Nevada, Southern California east of San Diego, an area west of Phoenix, and tracts north of Cedar City in Utah, southwest of Pueblo, Colo., and around Las Cruces, N.M.
Bureau officials said the goal will be to identify lands of at least three square miles with solar exposure, suitable slopes and proximity to existing or designated roads and transmission lines. Wilderness, high-conservation-value lands and lands with conflicting uses were excluded. Setting aside the sites, called Solar Energy Study Areas, would prevent new mining claims and other third-party use during the studies.
The department already has "35 applications that we hope to prioritize and fast-track" on the 24 sites, Salazar said.
The agency was also considering environmental reviews for two projects in Nevada. The NextLight Silver State South would have a solar array producing 267 megawatts, and NextLight Silver State North would produce about 140 megawatts.
Salazar said the two plants combined would produce more electricity than a "mid-sized" coal-fired plant that can produce 350 megawatts.
"With coordinated environmental studies, good land use-planning and zoning, and priority processing, we can accelerate responsible solar energy production," Salazar said.
"This is the beginning of a historic effort in which the United States of America finally captures the power of the sun to power the energy needs in our homes and in our businesses, and in so doing creates jobs for the people of America," he said.
The Interior Department said maps of the sites will be published Tuesday in the Federal Register.