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Plan identifies best places for solar on US lands

LOS ANGELES — A draft plan identifying prime areas for solar energy projects on public lands in the Southwest was released Thursday by the Interior Department in an effort to speed up development.

The draft identifies 24 so-called solar energy zones in California, Nevada, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona that have the highest potential for solar development with the fewest environmental impacts. The plan announced during a conference call in Washington, D.C., also proposes to open an additional 21 million acres of land to potential solar development.

“The steps taken today help ensure that the United States will lead the world in energy technologies critical for meeting our energy goals and for sustaining economic growth,” said Henry Kelly, principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy with the Department of Energy.

Federal officials say there will be a 90-day public comment period and a series of public meetings in the Southwest as well as Washington. The final report, which aims to reduce conflicts and delays later in the process, will be released in 2011, according to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Congress in 2005 gave the Interior Department a goal to approve 10,000 megawatts, or about 5 million homes’ worth during peak hours, of renewable energy on public lands by 2015. Increasing such projects has been a key goal for the Obama administration.

Federal officials predict that the solar projects could contribute to this goal by delivering up to 24,000 megawatts of electricity — enough to keep 16 million homes powered at peak loads.