The Obama administration has identified 285,000 acres of western public lands on which to create solar zones and develop the alternative energy source, but the plan faces opposition from environmentalists who say it will harm the planet.
The blueprint for the solar energy zones calls for 17 large-scale projects that it predicts would create 5,900 megawatts of energy to provide electricity to nearly two million homes.
‚??Developing America‚??s solar energy resource is an important part of President (Barack) Obama‚??s commitment to expanding American-made energy, increasing energy security and creating jobs,‚?Ě Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement announcing the plan.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says their plan will facilitate a faster and smarter utility-scale development on land that has been deemed suitable for solar projects.
‚??This is a key milestone in building a sustainable foundation for utility-scale solar energy development and conservation on public lands over the next two decades,‚?Ě Salazar said in the July 24th joint statement.
The plan also calls for additional solar development on 19 million acres of so-called ‚??variance‚?Ě areas outside of the solar zones. In total, it could create enough renewable energy to power seven million homes, federal officials say.
But several environmental groups led by the Western Lands Project (WLP) filed a protest with the Interior Department on Aug. 24 calling the plan ‚??deficient,‚?Ě citing evidence they say suggests that disturbing the soil will release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
‚??No scientific evidence has been presented to support the claim that these projects reduce greenhouse emissions,‚?Ě the WLP said. ‚??Indeed, recent evidence suggests that the opposite may be true. Recent work at the Center for Conservation Biology, University of California, Riverside, suggests that soil disturbance from large-scale solar development may disrupt Pleistocene-era caliche deposits that release carbon to the atmosphere when exposed to the elements,‚?Ě negating any solar development gains.
The groups also cite the relocation or other mitigation efforts to offset the effects on threatened and endangered species as a ‚??severe, unresolved concern.‚?Ě Those species include the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, flat-tailed horned lizard, golden eagle, desert bighorn and desert tortoise.
Environmentalists say they are concerned the solar zones will devastate ‚??one of the last remaining floristic frontiers in the United States.‚?Ě
Instead of public landscapes, the environmentalists want the solar projects to be constructed on the rooftops of residential and commercial buildings and parking lots.
‚??By converting public lands to industrial energy factories in fragile, remote areas with massive requirements for transmission at great cost to ratepayers and the environment, our renewable energy policy is taking the least enlightened path possible, while attempting to create the illusion of innovation and progress,‚?Ě WLP said.
The solar zones are located in six states including California, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah on property controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.
Constructing the solar projects on the public lands chosen will provide ‚??good‚?Ě potential for transmission and ‚??relatively low conflict‚?Ě with nature as well as cultural and historic resources, federal officials say. Excluding 78 million acres from any solar development would protect other natural resources.
However, environmentalists say that is not enough.
‚??Massive solar power plants pose irreversible, long-term, cumulative ecosystem and species level threats to fragile desert and grassland biomes,‚?Ě says the environmental groups that include WLP, Basin and Range Watch, and Solar Done Right.
In their protest filed with the government, the groups said their activities on public lands, including hiking, camping, photography and studying plants and wildlife would be harmed if solar energy were developed on the affected public land.