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2 Az sites still on narrowing list for solar development

Interior drops one proposed 'solar energy zone' in state

WASHINGTON — The Department of the Interior has dropped one of three proposed “solar energy zones” in Arizona because of environmental concerns about the site, the department said Thursday.

Bullard Wash, in southwestern Yavapai County, was one of seven areas eliminated when the department released a revised draft of its long-term plan to streamline solar energy development in the West.

The revised plan for Arizona leaves zones in Gillespie, near the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Maricopa County, and in Brenda, near Quartzsite just north of Interstate 10.

Thursday’s announcement reduces the total number of zones from 24 to 17 nationally. The sites that were cut can still host solar-energy plants, but will not benefit from the streamlined process of the zones, which will have ready-made standards to cut time and money out of development.

The 17 remaining plots comprise 285,000 acres in Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Utah. More zones can be added, but department officials said they are not yet looking to do that.

Environmental groups said a solar plant in Bullard Wash would have disturbed a delicate transition zone between a Joshua tree forest and the Sonoran Desert.

“There is a unique flora and fauna where you have overlap,” in the Bullard Wash region, said Greta Anderson, deputy director of the Western Watersheds Project. “The connectivity and expansion of species in either direction is very important.”

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a conference call Thursday that the idea behind the solar zones is trying to identify “where the sweet spots are” for solar plants – where business opportunity is high and environmental impact is low.

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Then, instead of waiting for a project to be proposed and determining whether it passes muster, the federal government can create tailor-made standards for companies to see before they dive in.

“We turned the old system on its head,” Salazar said.

The zones will have concrete regulations for each region, said Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes. That should save companies and investors money because the environmental concerns are already spelled out and “test-driven, identifying potential conflicts.”

“The concept is that it’s a clearer, easier path,” Hayes said.

A December 2010 draft of the plan received more than 80,000 comments, including comments on the 7,239 acres in Bullard Wash. Environmental groups from the nationwide Wilderness Society to the local Tonopah Area Coalition cited dangers for plants, wildlife and groundwater there.

Anderson, who lives in in Tucson, said she would rather see solar plants where man-made structures like roads already exist, and the Bullard Wash site was too far into unspoiled territory.

“It was five miles from the nearest major road and five miles from the nearest transmission line,” she said.

Environmental advocates around the country applauded the department’s trims.

“By focusing on zones where projects have the greatest chance for success, the federal government can ensure that good projects move forward more quickly and that our most critical areas of important wildlife habitat are protected,” the Nature Conservancy’s Michael Powelson said in a statement.

A 90-day comment period on the revised plan began Thursday. A public meeting on the proposal has been scheduled Dec. 1 in Phoenix at the Sheraton Crescent Hotel.

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Nellis Air Force Base

The government’s 'solar energy zone' program aims to speed development of solar power by identifying areas where business opportunity is high and environmental risk is low, then tailor regulations to fit the specific site.

Sunny, with a chance of development

Remaining “solar energy zones” in Arizona that could be targeted for solar-power development under a federal plan:

Brenda

  • Area: 3,847 acres
  • Where: La Paz County, north of Interstate 10 between Quartzsite and Salome

Gillespie

  • Area: 2,618 acres
  • Where: Maricopa County, southwest of Wintersburg and the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station