Solar radiation levels in the Southwest are some of the best in the world, and the BLM manages more than 19 million acres of public lands with excellent solar energy potential in 6 states: California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. State renewable energy portfolios, investment tax credits for solar energy projects, volatile oil prices, and international concern about global warming have all contributed toward public and industry interest in utility-scale solar energy development. Solar energy projects can provide significant amounts of electricity while emitting virtually no greenhouse gases, but they require large areas of relatively flat land, and some technologies use substantial amounts of water—a scarce commodity in the arid climates where the solar resources are the best.
Solar energy development projects on BLM-administered public lands are authorized as rights-of-way under Title V of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act if the proposed project is consistent with BLM land use planning. The applicant is required to pay the BLM’s costs in processing the right-of-way application, and all projects require an environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act. Any entity that receives a solar energy right-of-way authorization must comply with the terms and conditions of the authorization and pay fair market value for use of the public lands.
Since 2010, the BLM has approved 33 utility-scale solar energy projects
, including connected-action projects that include electric transmission support authorizations, with a total approved capacity of 9,278 megawatts of clean, renewable energy — enough energy to power nearly 2.8 million homes. In addition, the BLM currently has some 70 pending solar energy applications.
In October 2012, the Secretary of the Interior signed the Record of Decision finalizing a program to facilitate development of solar energy on public lands in six southwestern states. The Western Solar Plan provides a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah by establishing solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, incentives for development within those zones, and a process through which to consider additional zones and solar projects. The Western Solar Plan established an initial set of 17 Solar Energy Zones, totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands, that serve as priority areas for commercial-scale solar development, with the potential for additional zones through ongoing and future regional planning processes. Two additional Solar Energy Zones were designated in 2013 in Arizona and California. If fully built out, projects in the designated areas could produce as much as 27,000 megawatts of solar energy, enough to power approximately 8 million homes. The program also keeps the door open, on a case-by-case basis, for the possibility of carefully sited solar projects outside Solar Energy Zones on about 19 million acres in "variance" areas.
Maps that depict which BLM-administered lands would be available for right-of-way (ROW) application for solar energy development under the BLM's action alternatives as outlined in the Supplement to the Draft Solar Programmatic Environmental Statement (PEIS) are available for downloading in PDF format. These include the BLM's 17 proposed solar energy zones (SEZs) as presented in the Supplement. Additional spatial data are also available for downloading in several formats, or for interactive online viewing.
Fact sheet : Renewable Energy and the BLM: SOLAR (pdf)