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About the Solar PEIS

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Frequently Asked Questions

What's in the Solar PEIS

The Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) evaluates potential impacts associated with the development and implementation of BLM's proposed Solar Energy Program for utility-scale solar energy development in six southwestern states. It also evaluates new program guidance relevant to DOE-supported solar projects.

The Draft Solar PEIS was issued in December of 2010, and a Supplement to the Draft Solar PEIS was issued in October 2011. The Final Solar PEIS was issued in July 2012.

What is the scope of the analysis in the Final Solar PEIS?

For the BLM, the proposed action in the Solar PEIS is to develop and implement a new Solar Energy Program that would facilitate environmentally responsible utility-scale solar energy development by establishing environmental policies and design features (i.e., mitigation requirements) related to utility-scale solar energy development in six southwestern states (Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah). The study area was limited to these six states because they encompass the best solar energy resources suitable for utility-scale development over the next 20 years. Within these six states, the BLM identified priority areas (solar energy zones or SEZs), that are well suited for utility-scale production of solar energy. It also identified variance areas outside of SEZs where solar development would be open to application but would require developers to adhere to the proposed variance process. The BLM originally identified 24 proposed SEZs in the Draft Solar PEIS, and about 22 million acres lands outside of proposed SEZs where solar ROW applications would be accepted. Through the Supplement to the Draft PEIS and the Final PEIS, the BLM eliminated 7 proposed SEZs from further consideration, reduced the size of some remaining SEZs to reduce resource conflicts, and reduced the area of lands outside SEZs available for application (variance area) to about 19 million acres.

For the DOE, the original proposed action was to develop programmatic environmental guidance to further integrate environmental considerations into its analysis and selection of solar projects that it will support. In the Supplement to the Draft Solar PEIS, the DOE presented that draft programmatic guidance for public comment. The guidance, with appropriate revisions, is presented in the Final Solar PEIS.

Information on Status of Solar Energy Development

The Final Solar PEIS provides information on approved authorizations and pending applications on BLM-administered lands as of May 31, 2012 (see Appendix B, Volume 6, Part 1). As of that date, the BLM had approved 11 utility-scale solar projects on public lands and 5 linear rights-of-way (ROWs) that enabled development of solar energy projects on private lands. The total capacity for the approved solar projects on BLM-administered lands is 4,512 MW, with an associated BLM land area of 44,025 acres (178 km2). There were 78 pending applications that remained open as of May 31, 2012; if built, these projects would provide a total capacity of 32,714 MW, with an associated BLM land area of about 626,000 acres (2,533 km2).

Some of the approved authorizations and pending applications are within proposed SEZs, details on these projects are available through the Documents page (under "Other Documents Related to the Final Solar PEIS").

Agency-Specific Programs

Through the Solar PEIS, the BLM considered whether to establish a new Solar Energy Program to supplement or replace existing policies, and to amend land use plans in the six-state study area to adopt the new Program. Under the program presented in the Final Solar PEIS, the BLM proposed categories of lands to be excluded from utility-scale solar energy development and identified specific locations well suited for utility-scale production of solar energy (i.e., SEZs) where the BLM would prioritize development. The Solar Energy Program (now finalized in the Solar PEIS Record of Decision [ROD]) emphasizes and incentivizes development within SEZs and proposes a collaborative process to identify additional SEZs. In order to accommodate the flexibility described in the BLM's program objectives, the Program allows for utility-scale solar development outside of SEZs in accordance with a proposed variance process.

Similarly, in the Final PEIS the DOE presented proposed programmatic environmental guidance to further integrate environmental considerations into its analysis and selection of projects that it will support. DOE will consider this guidance, including recommended environmental practices and mitigation measures, in its investment and deployment strategies and decision-making process. The proposed guidance is based on information concerning environmental impacts and potentially applicable mitigation measures provided in the Solar PEIS.

Lands Excluded from Solar Energy Development

At this time, solar energy development is prohibited by law, regulation, Presidential proclamation, or Executive Order from some lands administered by the BLM (e.g., lands in the National Landscape Conservation System, such as National Conservation Areas, National Monuments, Wilderness Areas, Wilderness Study Areas, and Wild and Scenic Rivers). Under its Solar Energy Program, the BLM also excluded additional lands such as lands the BLM has previously identified in its land use plans as environmentally sensitive, including Areas of Critical Environmental Concern or other special management areas, that are inappropriate for or inconsistent with extensive, surface-disturbing uses. Other areas identified for exclusion through the Solar PEIS ROD include areas of high priority habitat for greater sage-grouse and Gunnison's sage-grouse, and specific areas identified through consultation with cooperating agencies and tribes to protect sensitive natural, visual, and cultural resources. The entire list of exclusions is given in Table A-2 of the Solar PEIS ROD.

Site-Specific Environmental Review

The Solar PEIS ROD did not eliminate the need for site-specific environmental reviews for future utility-scale solar energy development projects. The BLM will make separate decisions as to whether or not to authorize individual solar energy projects in conformance with the existing land use plan(s) as amended by the Solar PEIS ROD. The BLM will complete a site-specific environmental review of all solar energy applications in accordance with NEPA prior to issuing an authorization. As part of the Solar PEIS, the BLM conducted a thorough environmental review of the proposed SEZs so that future reviews of applications within SEZs would involve limited additional effort in terms of project-specific NEPA analyses. All future projects proposed in SEZs will tier to the analysis in the Solar PEIS. The extent of this tiering, however, will vary from project to project, as will the necessary level of NEPA documentation. The extent of this tiering will vary from project to project, as will the necessary level of NEPA documentation.

Additionally, to aid the evaluation of the impacts of the proposed withdrawal of the lands encompassed by the SEZs from potentially conflicting uses, a mineral potential report has been prepared for the proposed SEZs in each of the six states in the study area. These reports are available through the Documents page.

What Alternatives Were Analyzed in the Solar PEIS?

BLM's Alternatives

The Final Solar PEIS evaluated the following three BLM alternatives. Under either of the action alternatives, the new Solar Energy Program would be implemented through land use plan amendments.

  1. A no action alternative that continues the issuance of right-of-way authorizations for utility-scale solar energy development on BLM-administered lands by implementing the requirements of the BLM's existing solar energy policies on a project-by-project basis.
  2. A solar energy development program alternative (referred to as the program alternative, this is BLM's preferred alternative). The program alternative proposes categories of lands to be excluded from utility-scale solar energy development (about 78 million acres [319,702 km2] proposed for exclusion) and identifies specific locations well suited for utility-scale production of solar energy (i.e., SEZs) where the BLM would prioritize development (about 285,000 acres [1,553 km2] in the six-state study area). The program alternative allows for utility-scale solar development in variance areas outside of SEZs in accordance with a proposed variance process (about 19 million acres [82,964 km2] in the six-state study area). The program alternative also establishes ROW authorization policies and design features for utility-scale solar energy development on BLM-administered lands.
  3. An SEZ program alternative (referred to as the SEZ alternative). The SEZ alternative applies the same ROW authorization policies and design features as the program alternative to utility-scale solar energy development but restricts ROW applications to SEZs only (about 285,000 acres [1,553 km2] in the six-state study area).

DOE's Alternatives

The Final PEIS evaluated two DOE alternatives:
  1. A no action alternative under which DOE continues its existing case-by-case process for addressing environmental concerns for solar projects supported by the agency.
  2. A programmatic environmental guidance alternative that develops guidance with recommended environmental best management practices and mitigation measures that could be applied to all DOE-supported solar energy projects.

What solar energy technologies were evaluated in the Solar PEIS?

The Solar PEIS analyzed potential environmental impacts associated with the development, operation, and decommissioning of utility-scale solar energy projects; i.e. solar energy projects that can generate 20 MW or more of electricity that is delivered into the electricity transmission grid. The following technologies were included in the PEIS analysis:

  • Concentrating Solar Power (CSP)
    • parabolic trough (including compact linear Fresnel reflector)
    • power tower
    • dish systems
  • Photovoltaic (PV) Systems - flat plate and concentrating

See the Utility-Scale Solar Energy and Electric Transmission Guide for more information about these utility-scale solar energy technologies.

What impacts and issues were addressed in the Solar PEIS?

Preliminary issues and management concerns associated with utility-scale solar energy development were identified by Agency personnel, other agencies, and public stakeholders.

The Solar PEIS evaluated direct, indirect, and cumulative impacts to:
  • Lands and Realty
  • Specially Designated Areas
  • Rangeland Resources
  • Recreation
  • Military and Civilian Aviation
  • Geologic Setting and Soil Resources
  • Minerals
  • Water Resources
  • Ecological Resources (including plants, wildlife, aquatic biota, and special status species)
  • Air Quality and Climate
  • Visual Resources
  • Acoustic Environment
  • Paleontological Resources
  • Cultural Resources
  • Native American Concerns
  • Socioeconomic Resources
  • Environmental Justice
  • Transportation
  • Hazardous Materials and Waste
  • Health and Safety

What are land use plans?

A land use plan is a set of decisions that establish management direction for land within a BLM administrative area, as prescribed under the planning provisions of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA); it is an assimilation of land-use-plan-level decisions developed through the planning process outlined in 43 CFR 1600, regardless of the scale at which the decisions were developed. The term includes both resource management plans (RMPs) and management framework plans (MFPs). Land use plan decisions establish desired outcomes and actions needed to achieve them. Decisions are made using the planning process defined in 43 CFR 1600.

The land use planning process is the key tool used by the BLM to protect resources and designate uses on BLM-administered lands. These plans help ensure that the public lands are managed in accordance with applicable laws and regulations under the principles of multiple use and sustained yield, recognizing the Nation's need for domestic sources of minerals, food, timber, and fiber while protecting the quality of scientific, scenic, historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water, and archaeological values.