US unveils solar energy plan for western public lands

(Reuters) – The Biden administration on Wednesday unveiled a proposal for solar energy projects on federal lands that identifies 22 million acres in 11 western states best suited for development.

The announcement is part of the Interior Department’s push to site more renewable energy facilities on federal lands, a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s goal to decarbonize the U.S. electricity grid by 2035 and combat climate change.

The draft plan published on Wednesday would update an Obama-era policy that established special zones for solar projects in six states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.

Interior said changes to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) 11-year-old Western Solar Plan were necessary due to advances in technology, soaring demand for renewable energy and increased interest in solar development in northern states.

The new plan includes areas in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming and is focused on lands within 10 miles of existing or planned transmission lines because those areas are easier to develop, Interior said.

It also excludes 126 million acres from development due to conflicts with things like critical wildlife habitats, recreation, historic places and old growth forests.

The plan relied on federal forecasts for clean energy needs to determine that 700,000 acres of public lands would be needed for solar energy over the next 20 years.

“By updating this plan, we will facilitate faster and easier responsible permitting in priority areas and improve consistency in processing rights of way for utility-scale solar projects,” Laura Daniel-Davis, Interior’s acting deputy secretary, said on a call with reporters.

The proposal is open for public comment until April 18. A final plan is expected to be published before the end of the year.

Separately, Interior said it had taken steps toward approval of six solar projects and a transmission line in Nevada, California and Arizona. BLM has approved 47 clean energy projects, enough to power more than 3.5 million homes, during the Biden administration.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Toby Chopra)