SAN FRANCISCO — Federal officials on Friday approved a plan that sets aside 285,000 acres of public land for the development of large-scale solar power plants, cementing a new government approach to renewable energy development in the West after years of delays and false starts.
At a news conference in Las Vegas, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the new plan a "road map … that will lead to faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on public lands."
The plan replaces the department's previous first-come, first-served system of approving solar projects, which let developers choose where they wanted to build utility-scale solar sites and allowed for land speculation.
The department no longer will decide projects on a case-by-case basis, as it had since 2005, when solar developers began filing applications. Instead, the department will direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles.
The government is establishing 17 new "solar energy zones" on 285,000 acres in six states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico. Most of the land — 153,627 acres — is in Southern California.
The Obama administration has authorized 10,000 megawatts of solar, wind and geothermal projects that, when built, would provide enough energy to power more than 3.5 million homes, Salazar said.
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the effort will help the United States stay competitive.
"There is a global race to develop renewable energy technologies — and this effort will help us win this race by expanding solar energy production while reducing permitting costs," Chu said in a statement.
The new solar energy zones were chosen because they are near existing power lines, allowing for quick delivery to energy-hungry cities. Also, the chosen sites have fewer of the environmental concerns — such as endangered desert tortoise habitat — that have plagued other projects.
Environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, which had been critical of the federal government's previous approach to solar development in the desert, applauded the new plan.
"We can develop the clean, renewable energy that is essential to our future while protecting our iconic desert landscapes by directing development to areas that are more degraded," said Michael Powelson, the conservancy's North American director of energy programs.
Some solar developers that already are building projects were complimentary of the new approach, saying it will help diversify the country's energy portfolio more quickly.
Salazar said the country four years ago was importing 60 percent of its oil and that today that number has dropped to 45 percent.
"We can see the energy independence of the United States within our grasp," he said.