In an effort to speed development of solar power in the West, the U.S. Department of the Interior has proposed 17 sites as meeting multiple criteria, in hopes that developers will build grid-scale solar projects on them.
Finding sites for big solar can be problematic. They can require thousands of acres of land. Access by road, preservation of native habitat and archaeological sites are major issues, as are water rights. Conservation groups and agricultural interests can block developments for years with lawsuits.
The new plan has been considerably scaled back from the original plan, which had 24 sites covering 677,000 acres total. Now, it’s 17 sites with 285,000 acres. The sites have been pre-screened for desirability, which makes the application process easier for developers as they can use the government’s data in applying for permits. The sites are presumed to be environmentally sound, with access to water, the ability to build transmission lines without undue effect, and minimal impact on cultural resources and wildlife.
There are two Arizona sites. One is north of Brenda, which is on Rte. 60 near the split from I-10. It is 3,847 acres, located in the Ranegras Plain in La Paz County. The Gillespie site is extremely remote, covering 2,618 acres southeast of Harquahala Springs between I-10 and I-8 in Maricopa County. Indeed, while maps show Gillespie, it appears to have a minimal population, if any, and may exist in name only.
The logistics of building utility-scale solar plants in deserts are daunting indeed. Large amounts of equipment must be trucked in over roads without damaging the fragile desert habitat, most especially not the thin crust on top of the soil. If that is disturbed, erosion can quickly occur. Obviously, at the site itself, the earth will be heavily disturbed, and care must be taken that wildlife like the desert tortoise is not harmed. In addition, large transmission lines need to be built connecting the solar power plant to the grid, and housing needs to be built for the crews. All this has to be done in sometimes blistering Arizona heat, and as always, water is a continual issue (Some solar plants, like concentrated solar, can use large amounts of water. By contrast, photovoltaic solar uses very little).
It is perhaps significant how much the government has scaled back plans for proposed solar sites. NIMBYs, environmentalists, and ranchers can be vocal in their opposition to certain sites, and often for good reason. We are going to need ever increasing amounts of power. Solar can provide it. But the sites need to be located carefully. With this plan, the government is trying to, in effect, pre-qualify sites so the permitting and building processes go much faster.