Here Comes the Sun: Solar Energy Zones Are Key to America’s Renewable Future

“Solar power is an important new source of renewable domestic energy. Done right, we can produce energy, generate jobs and conserve hunting and fishing on our public lands.”

Kate Zimmerman, Senior Policy Advisor for NWF

Solar panel by Flickr's Living Off Grid
Photo by Flickr's Living Off Grid
When President Barack Obama addresses Congress, he is quick to remind us of his Administration’s commitment to building a solar energy industry – and doing so through more than constructing panels on America’s rooftops.

“I’m directing my administration to allow the development of clean energy on enough public land to power 3 million homes,” the president declared in the State of the Union address on Tuesday evening.

Sounds great in theory, but how does he propose managing the complexity of both promoting such a land-intensive use and conserving vital fish and wildlife habitats?

Finally, a Plan

For the past three years the U.S. Department of Interior and Department of Energy have been developing a solar energy program for public lands in six Western states that can achieve both of those goals. Last year, the agencies unveiled an environmental review of the program and accepted public comments until last Friday. Now, these comments will lead to the implementation of a final solar program later this year – a roadmap for sustainable, environmentally responsible solar energy development.

At the heart of what it is a very complex proposal is a very simple idea – Solar Energy Zones (SEZs). These are areas of public land with high energy potential – accessible to transmission – that have been reviewed and determined to already be degraded or otherwise have low potential for negative impacts to wildlife, habitat, recreation, or other uses.

Sportsmen Speak on Solar

To better understand this planning process for appropriately locating and designing solar energy facilities, NWF helped pulled together sportsmen from across the nation last December near Las Vegas. This event clarified to policy makers the needs and concerns of hunters and anglers in this process, and set the stage for opportunities for sportsmen to engage as Solar Energy Zones are designated, giving them a seat at the table as plans are developed to mitigate the impact solar development on desert wildlife.

NWF Supports …

Bighorn SheepNWF wholeheartedly endorses the designation of Solar Energy Zones. The SEZs represent a new approach to meeting our clean energy goals in a wildlife-friendly manner – one that will avoid the fragmentation of important wildlife habitats that has occurred as a result of other commercial activities on public lands, such as oil and gas drilling. The best path going forward will guide development to identified public lands, consolidating related infrastructure and resulting in less total land disturbance. Needed clean energy can be built faster, cheaper, with less opposition from other public land users, and in a sustainable manner.

With some additional work to limit development outside the designated zones, exclude vital habitat and movement corridors for Desert bighorn sheep, elk, pronghorn, and Greater sage-grouse from development zones, and provide adequate mitigation for habitat losses, the proposed solar zoning framework represents the kind of initiatives NWF is pursuing in removing barriers from wildlife-friendly renewable energy.