BLM Lands and Solar Energy Projects: What You Need to Know
Past and current presidential administrations have worked to propel renewable energy use to curb climate change. In 2012 the U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) Bureau of Land Management (BLM) finalized the Western Solar Plan, a six-state plan changing Land Use Plans in order “to facilitate utility-scale solar energy by designating Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) in areas of low resource conflict, access to transmission, and a high potential for solar energy development on public lands.” These states include Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah, where roughly 285,000 acres were designated as SEZs.
Currently, three Solar Energy Zones exist in Arizona, including the Agua Caliente, Brenda, and Gillespie. The Brenda and Gillespie SEZs were identified in Arizona through the Record of Decision (ROD). The Agua Caliente SEZ was subsequently identified through a statewide planning effort for facilitating renewable energy development and finalized in January 2013.
What is the issue?
Outside of SEZs, additional areas have been declared variance areas designed to allow key stakeholders to enter discussions before solar can be designated in these areas. Variance areas are defined as BLM-administered lands identified in the 2012 Western Solar Plan as potentially available to applications for utility-scale solar energy rights-of-way with special stipulations or considerations that are outside of exclusion areas and SEZs, except where those allocations have been superseded by subsequent BLM land use planning decisions. In Arizona, 3,380,877 acres were identified as Variance areas.
Variance areas are considered appropriate for utility-scale solar energy through a case-by-case application process. Throughout the process, BLM works alongside corresponding departments, including Federal, State, and local agencies and tribes, and public outreach. The process considers impacts on habitats, major land uses already permitted by BLM, physical exclusions, and critical environments along with social and economic effects on the population in the area; rural lifestyles; air quality; visual impact; surface and groundwater quality and quantify; change to any stream or body of water; existing noise levels; the surface of the land, including vegetation, permafrost, soil, soil stability; historic or archaeological resources or properties; populations of fish, plant life, wildlife, marine life, threatened and endangered species, marine mammals.
BLM may request the applicant to modify the application, request more information or otherwise deny the application altogether. It is important to note, where the BLM determines it appropriate, the Bureau has the discretion to consider a solar project proposed within an exclusion area. Click here for more information about the variance process.
We encourage you to review the map of SEZ designations, which also shows variance areas throughout Arizona. Also available is a map of lands excluded from BLM’s solar development program. If you hear or experience issues with variance areas within your county, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also reach out to your local BLM office for additional information.