At a wind farm near Palm Springs yesterday, US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell presented the department’s long-awaited plans for both multi-energy renewables development and conservation within 22.5 million acres of the Mojave and other Southern California deserts.
More than half the land lies within San Bernardino County. The rest is distributed among six other southeastern counties.
“So commonly we look across landscapes like this and think that there’s nothing there. But there are a number of species that live just in this place. We now have a roadmap that can be used in other areas across the country to say these are the areas with the greatest potential and the least conflict for development and these are the areas that should never be developed.”
The sweeping Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan Jewell unveiled—8,000 pages long—proposes streamlining 2 million acres as land immediately available for 20,000 Mw of utility-scale solar, wind, and geothermal projects during the next 25 years, and designating another 4.9 million acres for conservation of desert habitat and animals. The energy component would more than double the current energy production from California desert renewables.
The plan culminates five years of consultation between conservationists, scientists, developers, native American tribes, state and federal energy and wildlife officials, and others. SFGate reports:
“The goal is to prevent some of the mistakes that were made during the ‘solar gold rush’ in the Mojave Desert during the first year of the Obama administration, when solar developers, backed by billions in federal stimulus money, put giant industrial facilities on relatively undisturbed public lands in an effort to combat climate change and wean the country from fossil fuels.”
The California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are the lead agencies (Renewable Energy Action Team) for the California desert renewables/conservation plan. The plan iterates renewable energy, biological, and legal/regulatory goals and includes a Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement. It defines four DRECP “action alternatives” and the no action alternative.
Here are the characteristics of the preferred alternative:
- Best minimize impacts to cultural resources and Native American interests, based on the location and extent of its conservation lands
- Have the least area of Mohave ground squirrel important areas within Development Focus Areas
- Have the most intense development in Imperial County on agricultural lands
- Designate the most new recreation lands within the BLM LUPA
- Allow development within the smallest number of groundwater basins that are in overdraft or stressed condition
- Have the smallest likelihood of affecting cultural resources within Development Focus Areas
- Allow development of the Pahrump Valley area
- Protect the largest area of lands with Native American Elements within conservation areas
- Have the least amount of highly erosive soils within Development Focus Areas
In the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, contributor Helen O’Shea praises the multi-agency effort:
“Not only does the DRECP have the potential to serve as a blueprint for conservation and clean energy development in the California desert, it could become a model for how federal, state, and local agencies can work together … and how those collaborations are better overall for everyone involved.”
Now that the plan for California desert renewables has been released, a period of public comment begins on Friday and continues until January 9. The proposal has already divided conservationists and renewable energy activists in this region. The authors of the plan defend its broad-brush approach as presenting “conservation benefits that could not be achieved using the project-by-project approach currently used to permit renewable energy projects and protect species.”
Those who object to the plan point to the unanticipated effects of the $2.2 billion Ivanpah concentrating solar plant, opened in January near the Nevada border, on threatened desert tortoises and a fraction of the bird population. Illustrating the depth of debate is the fact that Ivanpah also received POWER Magazine’s first Plant of the Year award for renewables in the award’s 40-year history.
Desert residents have opined that the Obama administration should focus less on large-scale plants and more on rooftop solar. Native American tribes and people and the U.S. military also have a stake in what happens regarding California desert renewables. Areas of special interest and possible contention include the 23-square-mile solar and wind facility plant by Iberdola Renewables in the remote, near-pristine Silurian Valley near the Death Valley park and the 3,000-acre solar facility at Soda Mountain near the Mojave National Preserve.
Unlike traditional environmental impact statements, the plan for California desert renewables considers the effects of possible climate change. The renewable projects presented should offer significant pluses in this category that may offset other effects deemed environmentally undesirable.
You can access the digital documents comprising the draft plan and environmental reports from the California Energy Commission website. They are also available at available at local area libraries and on DVD upon request.