WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration announced a plan on Tuesday to open public land in six southwestern states to speed up the development of solar energy, while blocking projects in areas deemed environmentally sensitive.
The plan allows for 17 zones covering about 285,000 acres of federal land in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. The administration wants to fast track development of large solar power generation plants that would provide electricity to homes and businesses through power grids.
The Department of the Interior and the Energy Department said on a conference call with reporters that projects in these areas would have the greatest chance of succeeding in the designated zones with minimal effect on environment.
"This blueprint for landscape-level planning is about facilitating faster, smarter utility-scale solar development on America's public lands," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.
The administration also identified 19 million acres where solar projects would be allowed, but would not receive expedited permits.
Environmentalists concerned about disturbing pristine areas had initially opposed the plan. Salazar said officials had worked to address such concerns in the final plan, which covers about 40 percent of the land that had been considered for speedy solar energy development.
The project will be overseen by the Bureau of Land Management.
The plan blocks development on 78 million acres of federal land to protect "natural and cultural" resources.
"The BLM solar plan demonstrates that we as Americans don't have to choose between clean alternative energy and a healthy environment," said Mike Daulton of the National Audubon Society.
The government expects development of about 23,700 megawatts of solar power from the areas where projects are permitted, enough to power about 7 million homes.
(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe)