After two years of discussion with members of both citizens and industry, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy have finalized a rule book for solar energy development in much of the southwestern United States.

America is rich in wide open tracts of land that are perfect for the installation of solar energy farms. The only problem is that much of this real estate is publicly owned, and just as many take issue with the use of public lands for oil or gas development, the same concerns apply for solar. Even though the potential negative impact of solar farms pales in comparison to fossil fuel operations, it’s still necessary to create a set of rules so that development will minimize this impact whenever possible.

The Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) will speed the responsible development of solar energy on public lands by identifying solar energy zones with access to existing or planned transmission, the fewest resource conflicts and incentives for development within those zones.

“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,” said Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Developing America’s solar energy resources is an important part of President Obama’s commitment to expanding American-made energy, increasing energy security, and creating jobs.”

When President Obama took office in 2008, the development of solar energy projects on public lands was strictly forbidden (even though the lumber, oil, and natural gas industries have had access to this land for decades). The Final Solar PEIS identifies 17 Solar Energy Zones (SEZs), totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands sprinkled across Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. Since 2009, the Department of the Interior has approved 17 utility-scale solar energy projects that, when built, will produce nearly 5,900 MW.

“The release of the final Solar PEIS marks the beginning of a new era for how energy can be developed on our public lands for both people and nature,” said Michael Powelson, director of Energy Programs at The Nature Conservancy. “The Bureau of Land Management should be applauded for taking a giant step forward on developing the structure and substance of a mitigation program, which avoids high priority conservation areas and ensures all impacts are addressed.”

Main photo credit: kateausburn/Flickr