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Feds advance ‘solar energy zones’ in San Luis Valley

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Federal officials Friday took another step toward establishing 17 new “solar energy zones” on public lands in the West, including the San Luis Valley, by barring new mining claims that could impede renewable energy development on the sites.

The Interior Department said it has withdrawn nearly 304,000 acres of public lands in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah from new mining claims.

To streamline solar development, the new zones are near existing transmission lines, and were chosen because they had fewer environmental and cultural issues that would require years of study and mitigation.

Since 2009 the Bureau of Land Management has approved 25 solar projects in the West that, when built, will reportedly be able to power more than 2.4 million homes.

Directors of two environmental groups in the San Luis Valley, where the only zones in Colorado are located, said Friday that removal of the zones from potential mining or gas and oil exploitation is good news.

But their work isn’t over, said Christine Canaly of the Alamosa-based San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and Andrea Guajardo of Conejos County Clean Water Inc., based in Antonito. Both organizations plan to play roles in the development of solar energy, they said.

“We’re for solar energy, in fact, we’d like to see the whole San Luis Valley developed,” Canaly said. “The BLM did the right thing, but the areas withdrawn don’t have a lot of mineral potential.”

As matters stand, the potential economic benefits from solar energy to the community are marginal because development would be on public land, not private, Canaly said.

Guajardo echoed Canaly’s comments.

“No mining? Yes!” Guajardo said. “But there are no pending mining claims.”

What concerns her, Guajardo said, is assuring there is economic, social and ethnic justice.

The solar energy zones were part of community and tribal lands before development arrived, Guajardo said. Those groups should figure in any benefits derived from solar projects, she said.

Two of the solar zones are in Conejos County and one each in Saguache and Alamosa counties.

The lands had already been segregated from the mining laws under temporary measures. The Public Land Order extends the withdrawal for 20 years.

The Department of the Interior established the Solar Energy Zones in October 2012 as part of a Western solar plan for utility-scale solar energy development.

“The public land order protects the integrity of the Solar Energy Zones and helps us meet President Obama’s goal of green-lighting enough private renewable energy capacity on public lands to power more than 6 million homes by 2020,” BLM Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze said in a news release Friday.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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