Variance Process—Factors To Be Considered
The focus of the variance process is on collecting the right data and evaluating it with the right parties to assess the appropriateness of a given proposal, rather than on a prescriptive set of measures.
Applicants for utility-scale solar energy development rights-of-way (ROWs) in variance areas will be required to adhere to the data collection and survey protocols prescribed by resource agencies, including, but not limited to, those listed below. The BLM will consider a variety of factors when evaluating ROW applications and associated data in variance areas. The focus of the variance process is on collecting the right data and evaluating it with the right parties to assess the appropriateness of a given proposal, rather than on a prescriptive set of measures that would be established at the programmatic level. The BLM believes that this approach allows flexibility to adapt as data and science improve, recognizes the variability and tradeoffs associated with individual applications, and allows for satisfactory protection of resources of concern.
The BLM will consider the following factors, as appropriate, when evaluating ROW applications in variance areas:
- The availability of lands in an SEZ that could meet the applicant's needs, including access to transmission.
- Documentation that the proposed project will be in conformance with decisions in current land use plan(s) (e.g., Visual Resource Management class designations and seasonal restrictions) or, if necessary, represents an acceptable proposal for a land use plan amendment.
- Documentation that the proposed project will be consistent with priority conservation, restoration, and/or adaptation objectives in the best available landscape-scale information (e.g., landscape conservation cooperatives, rapid ecological assessments, and State and regional-level crucial habitat assessment tools [CHATs]).
- Documentation that the proposed project can meet applicable programmatic design features adopted in the Solar PEIS Record of Decision (ROD) (Appendix A, Section A.4.1).
- Documentation that the applicant has coordinated with State and local (county and/or municipal) governments, including consideration of consistency with officially adopted plans and policies (e.g., comprehensive land use plans, open space plans, and conservation plans) and permit requirements (e.g., special use permits).
- Documentation of the financial and technical capability of the applicant, including, but not limited to, the following:
- International or domestic experience with solar energy projects on either Federal or non-Federal lands; and
- Sufficient capitalization to carry out development, monitoring, and decommissioning, including the preliminary study phase of the project and the environmental review and clearance process.
- Documentation that the proposed project is in an area with low or comparatively low resource conflicts and where conflicts can be resolved (as demonstrated through many of the factors that follow).
- Documentation that the proposed project will optimize the use of existing roads.
- Documentation that the proposed project will optimize the capacity of existing and new transmission infrastructure, and avoid duplication in the use of or need for existing and new transmission and transmission interconnection facilities.
- Documentation that the proposed project will make efficient use of the land considering the solar resource, the technology to be used, and the proposed project layout.
- If applicable, documentation that the proposed project will be located in an area identified as suitable for solar energy development in an applicable BLM land use plan and/or by another related process such as the California Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) (e.g., Development Focus Areas) or Arizona Restoration Design Energy Project (RDEP) (e.g., Renewable Energy Development Areas).
- If applicable, special circumstances associated with an application such as an expansion or repowering of an existing project or unique interagency partnership.
- If applicable, opportunities to combine Federal and non-Federal lands for optimum siting (e.g., combining BLM-administered land with adjacent previously disturbed private lands).
- If applicable, documentation that the proposed project will be located in, or adjacent to, previously contaminated or disturbed lands such as brownfields identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) RE-Powering America's Land Initiative or State, local, and/or tribal authorities; mechanically altered lands such as mine-scarred lands and fallowed agricultural lands; idle or underutilized industrial areas; lands adjacent to urbanized areas and/or load centers; or areas repeatedly burned and invaded by fire-promoting non-native grasses where the probability of restoration is determined to be limited. Preference will be given to proposed projects that are located in, or adjacent to, previously contaminated or disturbed lands under the variance process, assuming all other factors are adequately considered.
- Documentation that the proposed project will minimize adverse impacts on access and recreational opportunities on public lands (including hunting, fishing, and other fish- and wildlife-related activities).
- Documentation that the proposed project will minimize adverse impacts on important fish and wildlife habitats and migration/movement corridors (e.g., utilizing the Western Wildlife CHAT, administered by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and coordinating with State fish and wildlife agencies).
- Documentation that the proposed project will minimize impacts on lands with wilderness characteristics and the values associated with these lands (e.g., scenic values, recreation, and wildlife habitat).
- Documentation that the proposed project will be designed, constructed, and operated to optimize the specific generation technology's efficiencies with respect to water impacts.
- Documentation that any groundwater withdrawal associated with a proposed project will not cause or contribute to withdrawals over the perennial yield of the basin, or cause an adverse effect on Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed or other special status species or their habitats over the long term. However, where groundwater extraction may affect groundwater-dependent ecosystems, and especially within groundwater basins that have been over appropriated by State water resource agencies, an application may be acceptable if commitments are made to provide mitigation measures that will provide a net benefit to that specific groundwater resource over the duration of the project.
- Determination of impacts on groundwater will likely require applicants to undertake hydrological studies using available data and accepted models.
- Documentation that the proposed project will not adversely affect lands donated or acquired for conservation purposes, or mitigation lands identified in previously approved projects such as translocation areas for desert tortoise.
- Documentation that significant cumulative impacts on resources of concern should not occur as a result of the proposed project (i.e., exceedance of an established threshold such as air quality standards).
- If applicable, documentation on evaluation of desert tortoise impacts based on the variance process protocol for desert tortoise.
- If applicable, documentation on evaluation of greater sage-grouse impacts based on the variance process protocol for greater sage-grouse.
- If applicable, documentation on evaluation of impacts to National Park Service (NPS) units and other special status areas under NPS administration as defined in the variance process protocol for resources and values of units of the NPS.