A legal battle is brewing between the Department of the Interior (DOI) and three public-interest environmental groups that claim the government failed to consider degraded lands for the siting of "destructive" utility-scale solar plants, and that it focused instead on millions of acres of public land when it established solar energy zones in six southwestern states.

A complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on Tuesday by the Western Lands Project, Desert Protective Council, and Western Watersheds Project says the government’s analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) "ignored alternative approaches that would be less damaging to the environment, more efficient, and less costly to taxpayers and ratepayers."

The DOI in October 2012 finalized its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), establishing an initial set of 17 solar energy zones totaling about 285,000 acres of public lands that would serve as priority areas for commercial-scale solar development. It essentially provides a blueprint for utility-scale solar energy permitting for solar power projects on public lands in six western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

According to the groups, as of mid-January, 11 solar projects had been approved on 41,350 acres of public land. The projects range from 516 to 7,025 acres, with the average power plant exceeding 3,700 acres. About 87 proposals are pending, meanwhile, covering a total of 670,599 acres of public land.

"Massive solar power plants will have irreversible, essentially permanent, impacts. The [Bureau of Land Management (BLM)] admits that ecological recovery after solar plants are decommissioned, if even possible, could take 3,000 years," the groups said.

“The Administration is opting to needlessly turn multiple-use public lands into permanent industrial zones.” said Janine Blaeloch of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project. “Solar development belongs on rooftops, parking lots, already-developed areas, and on degraded sites, not our public lands."

In their complaint on Tuesday, the groups say the BLM violated NEPA by failing to examine a distributed generation (DG) alternative and an alternative in which solar facilities would be sited on previously degraded or damaged lands. "The groups, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, called for analysis of these alternatives during comment periods, but BLM ignored them. “Had these alternatives been analyzed next to the others, the superiority of the DG and degraded-lands options would be clear,” said Blaeloch.

Sources: POWERnews, Westernlands.org