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September 2, 2014

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Energy:

Interior bets big on Western solar energy

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Tiffany Brown

Sen. Harry Reid speaks at a June 29 press conference at UNLV about solar initiatives in the southwest United States. He is flanked by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, left, and Madison Burnett, training director of the Electrical Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee of Southern Nevada.

Solar energy development in Nevada and five other Western states has been put on a fast track by the federal government, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced this week.

“It’s time for a new energy frontier,” he said June 29 from the courtyard of UNLV’s Greenspun Hall. The courtyard is shaded by photovoltaic solar panels.

The Interior Department set aside seven solar zones on 150,000 acres in Nevada to be studied for their potential to house solar arrays. There are 17 additional zones to be studied in California, Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. A total of 670,000 acres will be evaluated.

This initiative, Salazar said, will “help us harness the power of the sun once and for all ... Our expectations are bold, but they are achievable.”

Salazar, dressed in his trademark cowboy hat and bolo tie, signed the order directing the expedited study and solar energy development.

President Barack Obama wants to “do everything we can to put the bull’s-eye on the development of solar energy on our public lands across America,” Salazar said.

By the end of 2010, 13 large-scale commercial solar power plants across the western United States are expected to be under construction, creating 50,000 jobs, he said.

“In the history of our country, we never set aside lands for renewable energy or solar energy development,” he said. “We have 40 million acres set aside for oil and gas, but we have nothing set aside for renewable energy ... (This will create) energy independence for our nation, environmental security for our planet and jobs, jobs, jobs for the people of America.”

Within the 670,000 acres the government will study the 24 solar energy zones to determine where it is best to construct solar plants.

The Interior Department is speeding up an environmental-impact statement so it is ready to fast track the applications, he said.

Within the 24 zones the Interior Department has 35 applications. Outside of the zones, it has another 155 applications, which the study will also address, Salazar said.

Any mining or mineral claims, sales or other land actions in those zones are being withdrawn during the two-year study, Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said.

The initiative also calls for speedy reviews of industry proposals and the opening of five offices to issue renewable energy permits, including one in Las Vegas.

Electricians, who are being trained in solar theory and installation, built the solar array at Greenspun Hall, said Madison Burnett, training director for the electrical joint apprenticeship training committee of Southern Nevada. The program has trained more than 400 electricians over the past five years, he said.

“As the United States pushes forward with the development of green energy sources of wind and solar power, our nation will need a workforce suitable to building those alternative power systems,” Burnett said. “This will not only help in the development of solar power, but provide opportunities for skilled craftsmen in Nevada and provide a boost to our construction industry.”

The government needs to ensure the arrays are located in places most conducive to solar development and they don’t conflict with the other important public values, Salazar said.

“We will be able to tell with specificity where the best locations are for the siting of solar commercial scale facilities,” he said. “I hope today, here in Nevada, marks the beginning of a historic effort in which the United States of America finally captures the power of the sun to power the energy needs of America, in our homes and in our businesses, and in so doing, creates jobs for the people of America.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the effort was made to “make America a more secure nation.”

“We hear a lot about doing something about the environment,” he said. “That is what this is all about. Today in America we will burn 21 million barrels of oil. Tomorrow, the same. We want to back that off. We want to not be dependent on foreign oil.

“There are millions of acres set aside for oil and gas — it’s about time we did something for renewable energy and solar. This is a tremendous step forward for Nevada.”

NV Energy CEO Michael Yackira called the initiative a “wonderful thing” for the state.

“We need to have the ability to get these projects on as soon as we possibly can,” he said. “This will go a long way in doing that.”

The power company said it will either purchase the power or invest in the plants.

In 2007 more than 7,000 permits on federal land were approved for oil and gas energy developers, while no permits have been approved for solar energy projects, Solar Energy Industries Association CEO Rhone Resch said.

“Secretary Salazar and Sen. Reid showed real leadership today by announcing initiatives to expedite development of vast solar energy resources on federal lands in the West,” Resch said in a statement. “These areas have some of the richest solar resources in the world, and we should not miss the opportunity to create jobs and generate clean, reliable energy with an inexhaustible, domestic resource.”

Two solar applications are moving forward, both in Nevada: NextLight Renewable Power Silver State South and NextLight Renewable Power Silver State North. One is for a 267-megawatt array, the other is a 140-megawatt array.

One megawatt is enough energy to power 250 homes.

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