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The Obama administration wants to allow huge new solar energy plants on federal land in the Southwest, and that's causing some heartburn in the environmental community. While conservation groups support the idea of renewable energy, some local groups are concerned about putting industrial-scale solar projects on public land.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: In the Southwest, the federal government is the largest landowner by far. In Nevada, the Feds own 85 percent of the state. The Southwest also is one of the regions in the world for producing energy from the sun. So it might seem like a no-brainer to put huge, new solar energy plants in the unpopulated desert. That is, unless you're Terry Weiner of the Desert Protective Council.

Ms. TERRY WEINER (Desert Protective Council): It doesn't make any sense to slap up big industrial projects hundreds of miles from where the energy's going to be used and put these hideous transmission lines and string those for hundreds of miles.

BRADY: The Department of the Interior has proposed allowing two dozen solar energy study areas on public land in states like California and Nevada and Arizona. These would be industrial facilities that would require huge amounts of land and scarce water to operate. And they wouldn't allow room for other uses on the land, such as recreation.

Weiner says the U.S. should instead focus on rooftop solar panels in cities where the energy is used. She understands the climate change arguments for getting more of the country's energy from renewable sources, but Weiner says the desert is a fragile landscape that's home to endangered species.

Ms. WEINER: You are destroying habitat and creatures to save the planet?

BRADY: Around the Southwest, local groups like Weiner's have similar concerns, but national environmental groups have taken a slightly different point of view. They're also concerned about losing the benefits of undeveloped public land, but they're even more invested in reducing the effects of climate change.

Alex Daue is with the Wilderness Society.

Mr. ALEX DAUE (Wilderness Society): All of our energy has to come from somewhere. I would rather not see a single additional industrial development on the land, but if we don't develop renewables, we're just going to have more mountaintop coal mining removal or additional drilling in the Rockies. And we need solutions.

BRADY: Lots of different solutions, says Daue. Rooftop solar panels alone aren't enough to supply the entire country's energy needs. Moreover, the solar industry argues that if you're going to replace big coal power plants, it's easier to do that with big solar power plants.

Mr. RHONE RESCH (President and CEO, Solar Energy Industries Association): We are part of the solution, we're not part of the problem.

BRADY: Rhone Resch heads the Solar Energy Industries Association, and he's a little frustrated by criticism from within the environmental community. After all, oil and gas companies lease vast tracts of public land to mine for fossil fuels that are a major contributor to climate change.

Mr. RESCH: When you look at the oil and gas industry today, they have over 44.5 million acres of public lands under lease. So, you're looking at maybe two percent of all the oil and gas lands that are currently leased are being evaluated and considered for solar.

BRADY: In fact, it's even less than two percent. The Interior Department plans to set aside about 670,000 acres for the study areas. Certainly, that number could grow substantially in the future if the study areas are successful.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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