Citizens Urge Interior to Stop Solar Chaos

Conservation groups and concerned citizens submitted comments last week on the Department of Interior's proposed policy to guide the siting of utility-scale solar on public lands.  Although the policy represents an improvement from an earlier draft,  the common denominator among the comments was that the proposed policy is still too weak to prevent industrial solar development from inflicting irreparable harm on our desert ecosystems.  In the meantime, we continue to face a status quo where the solar industry has unfettered access to bulldoze some of the most treasured public lands in America's southwestern states, ignoring a more efficient alternative of installing solar panels in our cities.

In the video above, a contractor for BrightSource Solar destroys desert vegetation, including a cluster of Yucca that are probably 400-800 years old.

Interior's Supplement to the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement attempts to encourage industrial solar development in identified "solar energy zones" (SEZs) totaling over 1,057 square miles,  but Interior's preferred alternative would still allow solar developers to build facilities on over 31,000 square miles of other lands (known as "variance areas") if they meet certain requirements.  But 1,070 square miles of solar applications would be exempt from the requirements because they were filed before the policy was proposed last October.  Many worry that the policy still leaves many of our public lands vulnerable to destructive projects, resulting in continued significant environmental impacts, uncertainty for citizens that cherish public lands, and solar projects being challenged in court.

Partial Map of Lands Targeted for Solar Development

Some national environmental groups -- including the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife -- responded to the proposed policy calling for stricter requirements to keep solar development in the SEZs and adding widlife corridors to a list of areas where solar development would not be allowed (known as "exclusion areas").  Interior is under pressure from industry, however, to allow wide access to public lands.  The industry's record so far shows little respect for environmental concerns, as some companies continue to propose large projects in ecologically core areas.

Solar Done Right and a coalition of other groups argued that the solar siting policy still seeks to maximize the industrialization of public lands, ignoring more efficient priorities.  Solar Done Right's comments explain that our clean energy future should focus on energy efficiency, incentives for distributed generation (such as solar on rooftops or over parking lots), and utility-scale solar on already-disturbed lands, such as those identified in the EPA's RE-powering America's Land initiative.

Solar panels using space that is otherwise wasted, providing the double benefit of generating clean energy, and shade for the parking lot.  Photo by Basin and Range Watch.
The miracle of solar allows us to fit panels on spaces that otherwise have no use in our cities.  A UCLA study found that Los Angeles County has enough idle rooftop space suitable for solar panels to meet the cities clean energy demand.  A separate study by UC Berkeley found that a feed-in-tariff for distributed generation projects in California would generate would generate 3 times as many jobs as without, and generate $2 billion dollars in tax revenues and tens of billions in new investment.


  1. Solar power helps lower emissions, reduce pollution, curb lung diseases and save lives!

    If you do not know that poluttion kills mainly children, chronically ill people and elderly folks.

    Its good to have distributed generation with PV panels, however they are not able to provide 24/7 power and we do like our electricity to be available whenever!

    So we also need power plants and solar thermal power plants should be deployed in deserts, minimizing the damage to wildlife and vegetation.

    If you are fighting against something you have to know the benefits winning this fight will loose you, either you increase pollution and kill people or you give up on 24/7 electricity.

  2. Thank you, A.R.
    We absolutely need to kick our habit of fossil fuels. I am personally okay with utility-scale renewable energy on already-degraded lands, but we cannot depend on this for all of our energy needs given the tremendous amount of land this would require. Energy efficiency and distributed generation are far more cost effective as primary steps toward cutting out coal.

    Distributed generation and energy efficiency also require far less of the materials that require CO2 emissions in the first place. Do you know how much steel, concrete, copper, and other materials are necessary to build wind plants and large-scale solar? See:

    As for 24/7 electricity, unfortunately no form of renewable energy can currently guarantee that, which is why natural gas plants are being built to fill the gaps in intermittent generation from wind facilities. Energy storage offers some promise, however.

    We need a smart balance for our renewable energy future, and it simply does not need to involve the destruction of vast swaths of wildlands when we have better alternatives.


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