BLM strategy aims to spark development in Ariz. desert

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, September 11, 2015

The Bureau of Land Management has released a draft regional mitigation strategy designed to help solar power developers offset environmental damage caused by building commercial-scale projects across western Arizona.

The focus of the draft mitigation strategy centers on three federally designated solar energy zones (SEZs) on the state’s west side. The goal is to reduce industry uncertainty by identifying mitigation strategies upfront, thus enticing energy developers to build utility-scale solar projects inside the three zones.

The draft strategy also attempts to give solar developers an idea of the mitigation costs, proposing a preliminary per-acre fee ranging from $2,929 to $4,345 that would cover the costs to implement the agreed-upon mitigation measures.

“The draft strategy is a major step forward for potential utility-scale solar energy development on public lands in Arizona,” said Amber Cargile, a BLM spokeswoman in Phoenix. “Developed with significant stakeholder input, the draft strategy takes a landscape-level look at three solar energy zones on public lands in the state, identifying those natural and cultural resources that could be impacted by potential solar development, as well as ways to provide for any unavoidable impacts.”

The draft is now open for public comment through Oct. 2. BLM officials want to finalize the plans by the end of the year, Cargile said.

BLM has scheduled a Sept. 17 public workshop in Phoenix to discuss the mitigation strategy, which was developed by a team from the agency’s National Renewable Energy Coordination Office and the Argonne National Laboratory, a Lemont, Ill.-based science and engineering research center.

The three SEZs — the Agua Caliente SEZ in Yuma County, Brenda SEZ in La Paz County and Gillespie SEZ next door in Maricopa County, collectively covering about 8,000 acres — sit in a region of western Arizona considered to have some of the nation’s best solar energy potential.

BLM estimates total build-out in the three SEZs could result in the construction of solar power plants capable of producing as much as 1,100 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power roughly 330,000 homes and businesses.

“The BLM expects this information will provide solar developers with more certainty regarding the potential cost of mitigating resource impacts, and will provide stakeholders with more assurance that any residual impacts of solar projects on Arizona SEZs would be addressed through mitigation,” according to an agency description of the strategy.

It is part of a broader Interior Department effort to develop regional plans at all 19 SEZs that have been identified as suitable for commercial-scale solar projects across six Western states. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled the mitigation strategy in a 2013 secretarial order (Greenwire, Oct. 31, 2013).

BLM continues to work on other regional mitigation strategies, including the Dry Lake SEZ in Nevada, where the agency held an auction last year that resulted in energy developers bidding $5.8 million to develop six parcels covering 3,083 acres (E&ENews PM, June 30, 2014).

BLM in June approved three large-scale projects on those parcels that, when built, will have the capacity to produce up to 442 MW of electricity, or enough to power about 132,000 homes.

BLM this summer also released a draft mitigation strategy for the 25,069-acre Dry Lake Valley North SEZ — the largest of five SEZs in Nevada, with an estimated build-out capacity of 4,000 MW of electricity.

Cargile said the Arizona plan is based on the mitigation strategy for the successful Dry Lake SEZ that also established a per-acre mitigation fee, with the money going toward the restoration of lands in the nearby Gold Butte Areas of Critical Environmental Concern or four other environmentally sensitive areas.

The identification of solar energy zones suitable for development and the regional mitigation strategy approach have earned praise from conservation groups.

“It is great to see BLM continuing to prime low-conflict solar energy zones for development by advancing these mitigation strategies,” said Alex Daue, the Wilderness Society’s assistant director for renewable energy.

He added: “The recent success at the Dry Lake zone outside Las Vegas shows that this smart from the start approach works. Completing mitigation strategies for other zones and cementing this approach by finalizing BLM’s Wind and Solar Leasing Rule will set the course for meeting President Obama’s clean energy goals while protecting wildlands and wildlife habitat.”

A careful balance

The Arizona plan addresses compensatory mitigation for possible impacts in building large-scale solar projects within the boundaries of the state’s three SEZs.

All three zones were analyzed and evaluated by BLM as suitable for commercial-scale solar development as part of the Western Solar Plan finalized in 2012 that established the SEZs in six Southwestern states. The three Arizona zones were determined to have high resource potential and relatively low natural resource values, but the sites still offer habitat for sensitive wildlife species.

In addition, the mitigation strategy process was aided by BLM’s completion in 2012 of a so-called rapid ecological assessment of the Sonoran Desert region that analyzed the condition and natural resource values of the area.

In the 2,560-acre Agua Caliente SEZ, about 65 miles northeast of Yuma, Ariz., the area serves as wildlife corridors for species such as mule deer and mountain lion, according to BLM.

What’s more, the agency notes in a description of the SEZ, the area “is part of the largest unfragmented habitat remaining in southwest Arizona for bighorn sheep and mule deer.”

The draft mitigation strategy documents possible impacts at all three sites “that may warrant compensatory mitigation,” including the “loss of habitat” for the Sonoran desert tortoise, which is a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection. While the best-quality tortoise habitat is outside the boundaries of all three SEZs, the draft document states that the “tortoises may still use lower quality habitat on the SEZ where they may be directly impacted by solar development.”

There are also possible impacts to the Western burrowing owl and the California leaf-nosed bat that would require mitigation.

Build-out at all three sites might also affect “water quality and groundwater,” as well as “visual resources.”

The draft mitigation strategy lists possible mitigation actions, as well as the goals and “desired outcomes” of the mitigation.

For the Sonoran Desert tortoise, for example, a chief goal would be to “maintain viable populations.” For project developers, that could be done by buying “non-federal lands that include tortoise habitat” and protecting that habitat from future development.

Still, the three sites were designated as SEZs in large part because of their potential for development. All three SEZs have roads and some limited development, as well as access to transmission lines that can carry the electricity generated at the remote sites to major load centers.

A 500-kilovolt transmission line is located about a half-mile south of the Agua Caliente SEZ; the Brenda SEZ is about 12 miles north of a 500-kV transmission line.