WASHINGTON – The Bureau of Land Management is set to identify a third parcel of land in Arizona on Friday as a potential site for development of utility-scale solar-power projects.
If approved, the 2,550-acre Agua Caliente site in Yuma County, north of Interstate 8 near Dateland, would join two other Arizona zones, in Brenda and Gillespie.
They were among 17 sites in six states named “solar energy zones” by the Interior Department, which hopes the designation will speed development of renewable-energy projects.
Despite its relative abundance of both federal land and sunshine, Arizona accounts for only 6,000 acres of the nearly 285,000 acres of solar-energy zones in the states, which also include California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
Arizona’s share is the smallest of the six states, and it would remain so even with the addition of the proposed Agua Caliente site.
The solar-energy zones are those determined to be suitable for production of solar energy with the least amount of damage, said Dennis Godfrey, a BLM spokesman in Arizona.
“What that means to an applicant is, if I choose to apply to this parcel, some of the work has been done for me, so I don’t have to start from scratch,” Godfrey said.
The Brenda and Gillespie sites were made official about two weeks ago when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the records of decision on the parcels.
Godfrey said the Agua Caliente site is only a proposal at this point, and must still undergo a 30-day protest period before it can become official. The bureau expects the decision to be made final by the end of the year, he said.
“It is on track to become the 18th zone, but it’s not a done deal,” said David Quick, a bureau spokesman in Washington, D.C.
Quick added that these designations are a part of a long-term Obama administration plan, and he expects more solar zone proposals to come.
The “utility-scale” designation means the sites can house projects capable of generating at least 20 megawatts of electricity, Godfrey said. A megawatt can power about 300 houses, he said, meaning a utility-scale project could power roughly 6,000 homes.
Designating the zones in advance can eliminate the first few steps in the project application process, saving investors time and money, Godfrey said. He said reductions could amount to “a matter of months.”
But at least one conservation group thinks the bureau could find better locations for the zones, closer to major metropolitan areas.
“In general, we should be putting solar on integrated lands that are closest to where we’ll be using the electricity,” said Kevin Dahl, Arizona program manager for the National Park Conservation Association.
He noted that the two current zones in Arizona are far from state’s two major metropolitan areas.
While he has not seen the proposal for the Agua Caliente site, he knows it is near the Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail and worries that a solar power plant there would harm the trail experience. The trail is “a part of our history and our heritage,” Dahl said.
He said the association is also concerned with the impact solar zones could have on wildlife.
The zones should be “close to where people need the electricity, over lands that don’t have wildlife of concern, such as desert tortoises,” Dahl said.
Sunny development outlook
The Bureau of Land Management has designated two “solar-energy zones” in Arizona and identified a possible third. The zones are areas of federal land deemed to have the best chance for a large solar-power project.
Approved Arizona Solar Energy Zones:
• Brenda in La Paz County, 3,348 acres
• Gillespie in Maricopa County, 2,618 acres
Proposed Arizona Solar Energy Zone:
• Agua Caliente in Yuma County, 2,550 acres