Last week, we reported that the BLM and US Department of Energy had finally released their massive Draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement on large-scale solar development in the western United States. The 11,000-page document came more than a year after it was first promised — too late to influence the development of the first generation of large-scale solar plants in the country. However, the Solar PEIS almost certainly signals a symbolic and practical end to the controversial fast-track permitting process that over the past year has approved a number of the world's largest solar plants for construction in southern California.
None of the four East Bay solar companies who are behind a surprising number of those projects and who were identified in our story "Oakland Invades the Desert" — BrightSource, SunPower, Solar Millennium, and First Solar — were willing to issue a statement on the document, saying only that they had yet to review it. This may come as little surprise; it was the environmental groups critical of existing practices that anxiously awaited the release of the document — not the developers. However, parties on both sides of the fence are likely to benefit.
"We are generally supportive of this approach," said Kim Delfino, California program director of Defenders of Wildlife, who has been critical of solar development procedures to date. Her organization released a statement last Thursday that referred to the PEIS as "a welcome shift in solar siting strategy away from the 'fast-track' process;" they hope the document will "drive solar energy development to areas that would reduce impacts on wildlife, water and the environment."
The Natural Resources Defense Council, another environmental organization with a stake in ongoing solar development in the desert, has not issued a formal statement, but staff member Helen O'Shea addressed it in a recent blog post: "With the PEIS the BLM has a terrific opportunity to build that program from the ground up and to make sure that solar development on our public lands is done right from the start — solar projects developed with careful planning up front, located in appropriate places that avoid sensitive wildlife areas and other vital natural resources, and configured in the least environmentally harmful ways."
Both environmental agencies say further review of the document is required before commenting in more detail. Given its heft, that could take weeks — what a way to spend the holidays.