Obama administration announces solar energy projects

The Obama administration will open public lands in six Western states to more solar projects as part of a solar energy road map it publicized Tuesday.

The Interior Department set aside 285,000 acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah for the initiative. Firms can apply for waivers to develop projects on an additional 19 million acres.

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Calling the announcement a “proud moment,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in a conference call Tuesday that it reaffirms Obama’s commitment to solar power. He noted public lands hosted no solar projects when Obama took office.

The administration has since approved 17 major solar projects on public lands producing about 6,000 megawatts of power, Salazar said.

“We have made huge strides in the last three-and-a-half years, but we realize we are only at the beginning of this effort and that there’s a lot more to do,” Salazar said. “I have no doubt that the United States will lead the world in solar energy development.”

Republicans want Obama to open public lands to more oil, gas and mineral drilling. They also oppose the president’s clean-energy push, saying it has done little to provide jobs when the country sorely needs them.

The areas selected in the plan minimize “resource conflict,” Salazar noted, meaning they avoid regions where solar development would edge out exploration for other natural resources.

The plan released Tuesday would expedite solar project approval while cutting some up-front costs for developers, Steve Black, counsel to the Interior Department, said Tuesday.

Interior already has performed National Environmental Policy Act assessments, will work with regional planners to link projects with transmission lines that carry electricity to electrical substations and has included financial incentives in the competitive leasing process, though the department did not provide specifics about those incentives.

By 2030, the areas identified in the solar road map will supply 23,700 megawatts of power, enough to run more than 7 million homes, Mike Pool, acting director with the Bureau of Land Management, said Tuesday.

Republicans have homed in on solar firms when attacking Obama for his energy policies. The bankruptcy of California solar firm Solyndra, which got a $535 million federal loan guarantee through an Energy Department program, put the divide between the administration’s and GOP’s energy goals front and center.