By Tom Doggett
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration on Thursday proposed special energy zones on public lands in six western states deemed good locations to build utility-scale facilities to produce electricity from solar power.
The Interior Department issued a draft environmental impact statement that looked at the effect of solar energy projects able to generate 20 megawatts of power in areas that have the highest solar potential and will do the least harm to the environment.
"As stewards of our public lands, we must make sure that we are developing renewable energy in the right way and in the right places," Salazar told reporters.
The western states targeted with 24 solar energy zones were Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah.
Bob Abbey, who heads the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, the agency that will review any specific solar projects, said the amount of electricity that could be generated by the sun on all BLM lands in the six states, including, the designated energy zones could total 24,000 megawatts over 20 years.
The department does not have an estimate for solar generation just on the designated energy zones.
"For years, the oil and gas industries have had an easy path for getting permits to drill on public lands. With today's announcement, solar energy projects are now closer to a more predictable review and approval process for projects on public lands," said Rhone Resch, president of Solar Energy Industries Association.
The proposal will be open for public comment for 90 days and the department expects to issue a final report during the fall of 2011, said Salazar.
The solar energy zones will help meet President Barack Obama's goal to double the amount of U.S. electricity generated by renewable energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal.
The department's energy zone proposal comes a day after the U.S. Senate approved extending a Treasury Department program through next year that gives companies a rebate equal to 30 percent of the cost of their solar or wind energy projects.
To be successful, Salazar said solar projects in the six western states will need access to transmission lines.
Federal regulators proposed last month reforms to make the U.S. electric grid more accessible to electricity generated by renewable energy sources, which should lower costs for consumers who want to buy clean power.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission proposed a rule requiring public utility transmission providers to allow renewable power producers to schedule their shipments of electricity over shorter time periods to better reflect the moment-to-moment changes in generation output by renewables.
Solar and wind power producers would be able to schedule transmission service in 15-minute intervals, instead of the current one-hour scheduling procedure.
(Reporting by Tom Doggett;editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)