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Updated Feb 21, 2012 - 6:15 am

Feds target 237,100 acres in Arizona for renewable energy projects

WASHINGTON - The Bureau of Land Management has recommended 237,100 acres of public land in Arizona are suitable for renewable energy development, part of an effort to speed up the process for clean-energy companies looking to set up shop in the state.

The agency Friday released a draft environmental impact statement for its Restoration Design Energy Project, recommending a middle course among six alternatives that ranged in size from 43,700 acres to 321,500 acres.

"Arizona has great potential to build a strong renewable energy economy," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a prepared statement.

The BLM project is unique to Arizona, but supporters said it is being looked at for other parts of the country. A similar effort has been launched across the West by the bureau.

The Arizona report looked for lands that could become Renewable Energy Development Areas (REDA) for solar and wind energy projects. The option recommended Friday identified agency lands that are either within five miles of points of demand - such as cities or towns - or of utility corridors and existing transmission lines that could carry energy to market.

"I am confident this smart planning will pay dividends for the state now and far into the future," said Salazar's statement, which noted that Arizona has some of the most significant solar resources in the world.

BLM took a step toward Friday's announcement earlier last week when it set aside almost 21,000 acres at Agua Caliente from mining claims for the next two years "to protect this area from encumbrances, particularly mining claims, while it is studied as a potential solar energy zone."

In the recommendation issued Friday, the BLM said 6,770 acres of the Agua Caliente land - 70 miles east of Yuma - could be a solar-energy zone, making it attractive to companies seeking to develop such projects.

The draft environmental impact statement issued Friday opened a three-month public comment period, but the plan was already getting praise Monday from clean-energy industry officials.

Setting aside land for clean energy is good for the state, said Michael Neary, the executive director of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association.

"Arizona is a prime location for solar energy," Neary said, calling the project another step to Arizona becoming a true player in the solar-energy market.

Craig Cox, executive director of the Interwest Energy Alliance, said he was happy to see the government "taking these proactive steps to advance renewable and solar development on public lands."

Cox, whose alliance represents firms developing renewable energy in Western states, said it's particularly good that the BLM was looking at "lands are already disturbed," or previously used for landfills, mines or agriculture.

The project shows solar is a good option for consumers in the West, Cox said.

"It's important that we're moving the ball forward," he said. "It's beneficial for consumers and the environment as well."

Environmentalists also backed the BLM plan, which one said will help Arizona fulfill its potential as a solar energy provider.

"We're obviously excited to see the BLM and Obama administration taking renewable energy development seriously," said Bret Fanshaw, spokesman for Environment Arizona, "especially in a place where it makes a lot of sense like Arizona, where the sun shines every day."

Fanshaw said Arizona is behind states like New Jersey, citing a March report by the Solar Energy Industries Association that said New Jersey had 14 percent of the nation's installed solar capacity in 2010 to Arizona's 6 percent.

"We have the most potential for solar energy . . . in terms of how intense the sun is out here and how many days the sun shines, and also, Arizona has a lot of land that can be developed," he said. "There's a number of ways we can get there."

Other groups, while generally supportive, declined comment Monday until they have had a chance to study the nearly 1,000-page BLM document more closely.

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