SAN FRANCISCO - Federal officials on Friday approved a plan that sets aside 285,000 acres of public land for the development of large-scale solar power plants, cementing a new government approach to renewable energy development in the West after years of delays and false starts.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the new plan a "roadmap ... that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands."
The plan replaces the department's previous first-come, first-served system of approving solar projects, which let developers choose where they wanted to build utility-scale solar sites and allowed for land speculation.
The department will no longer decide projects on case-by-case basis, and instead will direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles.
The government is establishing 17 new "solar energy zones" on 285,000 acres in six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Most of the land - 153,627 acres - is in Southern California.
The Obama administration has authorized 10,000 megawatts of solar, wind and geothermal projects that, when built, would provide enough energy to power more than 3.5 million homes, Salazar said.
Each of the new solar energy zones were chosen because they are near existing power lines, allowing for quick delivery to energy-hungry cities. Also, the chosen sites have fewer of the environmental concerns - such as endangered desert tortoise habitat - that have plagued other projects.
Environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy who had been critical of the federal government's previous approach to solar development in the desert applauded the new plan.
"We can develop the clean, renewable energy that is essential to our future while protecting our iconic desert landscapes by directing development to areas that are more degraded," said Michael Powelson, the conservancy's North American director of energy programs.