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U.S. government maps solar-energy future

Federal agencies map out public lands in six states that have potential sites for development of solar energy projects.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, in conjunction with the Department of Energy, this week released six maps that could help determine the location of the next big push in solar energy.

The BLM maps cover areas within the six U.S. states most suitable for solar energy generation and transmission as judged by the U.S. government: Arizona (PDF and below), California (PDF), Colorado (PDF), Nevada (PDF), New Mexico (PDF) and Utah (PDF).

"Only lands with excellent solar resources, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands were considered for solar energy study areas. Sensitive lands, wilderness and other high-conservation-value lands as well as lands with conflicting uses were excluded," according to a BLM statement released with the maps.

Arizona has two areas, Brenda and Bullard Wash, currently under in-depth study for solar energy generation use. U.S. Department of the Interior/U.S. Department of Energy

The maps were release in conjunction with announcements from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the U.S. government has decided to let public lands possibly be used for solar energy development. (The BLM is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.)

As part of that push, the U.S. government is beginning several environmental impact studies, opening solar energy permitting offices, and overhauling the application and review process for utilities looking to develop land for solar energy generation.

"Currently BLM has received about 470 renewable energy project applications. Those include 158 active solar applications, covering 1.8 million acres, with a projected capacity to generate 97,000 megawatts of electricity. That's enough to power 29 million homes, the equivalent of 29 percent of the nation's household electrical consumption," according to the statement released Monday by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The maps show Solar Energy Study Areas, 24 separate tracts of BLM-administered lands totaling 670,000 acres that the government sees as prime for development pending study results (dark blue stripe area on maps), as well as areas under review for Solar PEIS (Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to Develop and Implement Agency-Specific Programs for Solar Energy Development).

Maps have been rolled out before in an effort to encourage alternative energy utility infrastructure and set-up.

In April, the NRDC--in conjunction with Google and the National Audobon Society--also offered a set of maps for to guide energy developers of both solar and wind. The Path to Green Energy maps, which cover the Western U.S. and the Dakotas, indicate areas where developers would likely be welcome to set up shop, and which areas the NRDC saw as controversial or arguably inappropriate for development.

At the time, they, too, said their maps were an effort to expedite alternative energy development. In the U.S.