U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' office wrote two Cabinet secretaries this week to emphasize the support the congresswoman has given to their effort to establish solar energy zones on public lands in Arizona and five other Western states. With Giffords still hospitalized and recovering, however, the letter didn't take a stand on a specific alternative for solar on public lands.

"We applaud the work of the Interior Department, the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy to identify appropriate lands for large-scale solar energy development," said the letter from Pia Carusone, Giffords' chief of staff. "There is no time to waste in bringing the economic, national security and environmental benefits of solar power to the American Southwest and the nation."

Currently, the BLM has granted only a handful of rights of way to allow for solar energy development on public lands, the letter said. But just in 2009, more than 44,000 federal natural gas leases were approved, the letter said.

The letter called solar energy a "commonsense extension" of the legacy of renewable energy bred by large dam -- hydropower -- projects built in the Great Depression such as those by the Tennessee Valley Authority and in the Columbia River basin.

"Solar energy is america's most plentiful energy resource, and it is both clean and renewable," the letter said. "According to the Solar Foundation's 2010 Solar Jobs Census, employment in the solar energy and its supply chain is expected to grow an impressive 26 percent over 12 months, increasing the number of U.S. solar-related jobs from 93,000 to 117,000."

The BLM's preferred alternative for solar development is to set aside up to 4.5 million acres in Arizona and 22 million acres total in the six states, for possible future energy development. While this proposal is applauded by some solar advocates and solar industry spokespeople, wilderness and other public land protection advocates think it is an overreach, and prefer a scaled-back alternative of 13,000 acres in Arizona left open to solar.

In June 2009, Giffords issued another endorsement when Interior designated 16,500 acres in Arizona and 676,000 acres in the six states as prime zones for development of large-scale solar energy projects. This action was a precursor to the current BLM solar development effort. 

The Interior Department at the same time announced it was fast-tracking applications to use public lands for renewable energy--an action that may have gotten it into some legal hassles since opponents of these plants have since filed suit to block BLM's approval of six of them in the southern California desert. The suits allege violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental analyses of major federal actions, of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act and of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.