New CA Renewable Energy Plan Hints At New Direction For Renewables

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Our friends over at Renewable Energy World have tipped us to an epic battle that’s brewing over DRECP, the proposed Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan for California. This document, five years in the making, could severely curtail the development of utility scale solar power plants and wind farms on federal lands in California.

At first glance it appears that DRECP is a step backwards for California and renewable energy. However, when you tote up the state’s amenability to microgrids and hyper-distributed energy generation, and its potential for deepwater offshore wind farms along with advances in energy storage including EV batteries and fuel cells, you can see how the proposed DRECP formula fits into the big picture.

California DRECP preferred alternative
California DRECP preferred alternative (cropped) courtesy of

The DRECP Preferred Alternative

As described by Renewable Energy World, DRECP is the brainchild of two agencies under the US Department of the Interior (US Fish and Wildlife Services, and Bureau of Land Management), along with California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the California Energy Commission. Here’s the gist of it:

The idea was to resolve conflicts over accommodating enough clean energy to meet California’s climate goals as well as to create new conservation and recreation areas on California desert land. The goal was to reduce both interagency and local obstacles that have impeded desert clean energy projects by siting near transmission, on disturbed private land, while also preserving sensitive habitat.

So far, so good. You can check out the handy DRECP Fact Sheet for more details. The planning area includes seven counties (Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego) including several where private development is already widespread, so that thing about “disturbed private land” could include a hefty chunk of brownfields. That dovetails with the Obama Administration’s Re-Powering America’s Lands initiative.

In terms of renewable energy development, one attractive feature of brownfields is that many are located at or near existing infrastructure including transmission lines and roads.


Disturbed lands could also include areas where existing agricultural operations are no longer feasible in the context of a changing climate. Like brownfields, farmlands also generally have infrastructure in place that can be absorbed into renewable energy development.

However, the disturbed lands feature is also a catch. Of the total 2 million acres marked for potential development under DRECP’s “Preferred Alternative,” only 20 percent would be on public lands. The other 80 percent would consist of privately owned lands. In other words, the “invisible hand” of the market will ultimately determine the location and pace of utility scale renewable energy development in California, at least in terms of desert-based utility scale solar and onshore wind farms.

Distributed Energy Generation, Much?

If you look at the DRECP Preferred Alternative in isolation, it paints a pretty gloomy picture for renewable energy generation in California, at least as far as utility scale projects go, since there’s no guarantee that private landowners will jump at the opportunity for development.

However, DRECP is just one part of the renewable energy activity taking place around the state and the region. California is already setting records for utility scale solar generation but there are at least two other promising developments cooking on the back burner.

In terms of utility scale energy generation, California’s long coast provides it with a treasure trove of offshore wind energy resources. It hasn’t been tapped yet, for good reason: the available sites are located in deep waters, where existing wind turbine platforms can’t reach. However, in the sparkling green future California is among the states that will reap the benefits of new deepwater offshore wind turbine technology.

California also has the good fortune to have solar-friendly Arizona as a neighbor, as well as Nevada. Throw in the wind energy gold rush going on in Texas, and you have a reasonable expectation that a regional energy plan could include a reliable portion of utility scale, out-of-state renewable energy for California.

Also keep in mind that as solar cell technology improves and installation costs drop, the range of cost-effective locations for utility scale solar will expand beyond optimal desert locations.

On the other end of the scale, this year we’ve gotten some pretty definitive signals from utility industry insiders that the wave of the future will consist of microgrids including distributed energy generation and energy storage.

In California that would include a heavy dose of hyper-distributed solar, including vehicle-solar integration at individual homes.

The state is already home to at least two demonstrations that partner the auto industry with solar-integrated home design. One is the Ford-KB Home net zero mashup, and the other is the “Smart Home” project between Honda and UC-Davis.

For the record, California is also in hot pursuit of the fuel cell EV market, which could have significant implications for distributed energy storage statewide. That effort could dovetail with the hyper-distributed solar market if the latest Department of Energy small-scale hydrogen initiative pans out.

Now consider that various solar companies are piling into the distributed solar market with free solar carports and other financial incentives, and you can see why DRECP is weighing in on the side of caution when it comes to utility scale renewable energy development on public lands in the desert.

On the other hand, the Preferred Alternative is just one of several options outlined by DRECP and the public comment period is still open, so you could see a more expansive final result once the dust settles.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3143 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey

28 thoughts on “New CA Renewable Energy Plan Hints At New Direction For Renewables

  • Well written and informative. A great snapshot on how convoluted energy planning can become. It ain’t easy and requires onion layer peeling. California should dust off some of the Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) from the 1980s. Many of the existing right-aways for utilities, pipelines, etc have been done in those counties mentioned. Agriculture lands and private property may have been excluded. Something is fishy smelling about hydrogen and fuel cells. It seems like a pull blocker for natural gas. Another thing to be careful of is fake environmental groups popping up. Something like Citizens for Freedom, Liberty, Jobs, Guns, and Desert Newts – secretly funded by sketchy 501c3’s, funded by the usual suspects. (please note: the preceding environmental NGO is a fake environmental NGO I made up for discussion purposes. I don’t need someone informing me that it doesn’t exist.)

  • I’m curious what prompted the comment that “California is also in hot pursuit of the fuel cell EV market, which could have significant implications for distributed energy storage statewide.” I suppose if everyone is electrolyzing water in their homes, those plants could be ramped up and down on the smart grid to consume excess power when it’s available, but using hard-won hydrogen to power the grid (either with fixed fuel cells or linking the FCEVs to the grid) would be a huge waste.

    • I’d like to see some numbers on the cost of home hydrogen production. Extracting hydrogen from water and compressing it for use in a FCEV uses a lot of energy. Unless the equipment is dirt cheap I just don’t see this happening.

      EVs can be charged, ramped up and down, with nothing but a “smart” outlet.

      • Cost is just one thing. The sheer bulk of a (relatively) efficient electrolysis installation and compressor alone is enough to make them impractical for home users.

        The way Germany is thinking about hydrogen (using excess power to drive utility scale installation that inject hydrogen in the natural gas network) is far more interesting. It eliminates the need for storage or distribution infrastructure and natural gas can tolerate a significant fraction of hydrogen before its physical and chemical properties begin to change (over 5% has been validated).

        • Storing H2 in the natural gas piping also eliminates the need for compression, which is a major energy eater.

      • Not to mention that compressed Hydrogen is very dangerous unless store in a hydride matrix. Here’s an interesting little video on Bob Lazar’s ‘vette and how he propels it. Bob is somewhat notorious over his area51 claims but he’s obviously a scientist none the less.

        • So addition to using electricity on producing hydrogen, you also have to power a linear accelerator?
          OMG, what a waste of renewable electricity.

    • I agree, the volume of hydrogen needed and the super-high compression always made me think it was still at the sales, level. But my views are extreme. We’ve been driving a Spark EV for 12 months/7400 miles and it’s been wonderful. I’ve not written that word for a while. We just came from lunch at a legitimate French cafe, our car charged up 25 miles for free as we dined. There are 10 free such stations within a five minute walk from our house. Our 40 year old house is (slowly) being made over into a net zero energy house for our retirement. This all seems so logical to me, I assume most people are doing it or trying to. Two things more:
      Ironically, along with those EV charging stations, at the airport which is also five minutes away, they have one of the very few (less than 30?) hydrogen fueling stations in the US, I think I read recently. The “Sun Bus” line runs on Hydrogen.

      The grid is as dead as the Iron Horse, but there are some bills left unpaid. A lot of the politicking is about that, maybe all of it. SoCalEdison right now, allows me to put up as much solar as I want, use it (solar generated electricity) as I want, will buy it from me anytime for the same price they sell it to me, and basically behave as the perfect battery for my ‘almost-off-grid’ solar system. They know I’ll break free completely one day and they’ll be left with San Onofre. (Multi-hundred million $$$ debacle) and all the rest.

      And may I add, I’ve always thought California’s weakness was it’s inability to implement, especially all the way. Med marijuana is now recreational so why wait five years and millions more dollars to make it so? Colorado did it in one move, saving tax payers lots. Like wise, California should switch from the Petro economy to the Electric economy and avoid these “Solar Farm” half-measures. When everyone has there own community solar, those wind farms will be the new San Onofres.

      • I mistyped the last “wind farms”, is should read “Solar Farms”. Wind farms by nature have to be further away, mostly because the have to be big and high. And some places have more wind. Under ideal conditions they make solar look dim under the dollar/kwh light.
        The low desert, aka Palm Springs is where we are.
        Don’t get me started on the houses here. More like tents than places built for desert living.

  • For California to buy wind-generated power from Texas, somebody has has to move the Tres Amigas interconnector from perpetual project to building site.

    • With plans underway to bring Wyoming wind to CA it’s not likely Texas will be in the game. In fact, offshore is likely to be a bigger player.

      • Why spend a fortune to get offshore wind when there is still a vast untapped potential for bottom-dollar onshore wind?

        Even if Tres Amigas doesn’t make it pas the drawing board, there’s still vast potential in states that are already in the western interconnection. That will be a cheaper option for the forseeable future.

        • Because onshore wind (at least in the US) tends to produce strongly at night and not so well during high demand daytime hours. Offshore is a stronger daytime producer.

          As far as Texas wind, I’m not sure I see a major role on the West Coast, but if we link the entire North American continent we can lower storage and backup generation needs.

          The US is already linked to both Canada and Mexico to some extent. If Tres Amigas gets built we might see some massive solar farms in northern Mexico supplying solar to the NE on winter days.

          • Then again, daytime demand can be largely covered by solar for a lower cost.

            I also struggle to believe that a statement like ‘onshore produces maily at night’ can be applied to a continent-sized country like the US.

            For example, Iowa’s winds peak between 1 and 6pm – firmly in the daytime to the best of my knowledge. Many states also have winds driven by mountain ranges, which tend to peak during daytime. Large parts of Texas have winds dominated by the Gulf that peak in the evening.

          • The NE runs a bit short on sunshine in the winter.

            Texas is getting ready to install offshore. Wind in the Panhandle don’t give them the daytime gen they need.

            It’s not clear that offshore will stay nearly as expensive as it now is. Offshore is a much newer technology and there are a few efficiency tricks to be learned. Being able to build extremely large turbines at dockside and tow them to their stations may bring about some significant savings.

          • I’m not denying offshore wind costs are falling. However, they have so much ground to cover before they can compete that it would take a pace of price decrease unprecedented in history – and don’t forget onshore wind prices are still falling too. Offshore wind that can compete on price in ten years time? Probably. In 20 years time? Sure. Now? Not even close.

            Texas might want to choose offshore anyway because they have to be self-sufficient due to the idiocy that is ERCOT. Other states belong to a large grid and can import and export at will. The NE, for example, is tied in with the midwest the south and with parts of Canada (and thus with wind, solar and hydro).

            The only countries where offshore really makes sense are the countries that pioneerd it like Belgium: too densily populated to allow for large scale onshore development and with limited solar resources. But the US has the luxury of being a vast, sparsely populated country spread across various climatic zones. Use that to your advantage and don’t try to copy the expensive solutions Europe adopted out of necessity.

          • What your map shows is that coastal areas have strong winds. No surprise there.

            The important question is wether or not the higher capacity factor pays for the far higher cost of construction and maintenance. The answer is no, even in the shallow shoals of the North sea or the calm waters of the Baltic. That will change, but not before years of incremental innovation have passed.

          • No, the important question is how rapidly will we figure out how to lower the cost. Offshore has a resource advantage and, in the case of floating turbines, the advantage of being assembled efficiency at dockside.

            Offshore will build off the advancements of onshore turbines. The task will be how to make lowest cost platforms. This is new stuff, we’ve just started to work on it.

            It will take some years, most likely not the 30+ years it took to make onshore cheap, but with offshore there will be a lot more effort and money put into the work.

      • Texas should send it’s excess wind East to Birmingham and Atlanta, where there’s less wind. Even with transmission losses, wind from Texas might be cheaper than local wind in the Deep South.

        • Wouldn’t it make more sense for the South to draw power from the Midwest and Oklahoma? Both are closer and are in the same Eastern Interconnection.

          • Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia are buying or planning to buy wind electricity from Oklahoma.

        • Well Birmingham and Atlanta might be too far, but the Southern Cross HVDC line will at least reach Louisiana and Mississippi.

        • There’s pretty good wind in the SE (and some other places) if one just uses towers that are 20 to 30 meters taller.

          • Of course, most top quality wind areas also see increases in output by increasing hub height. Merely building a taller tower doesn’t change the fundamental equation: a turbine in the west or midwest will be more productive than an equivalent turbine in the south.

            That being said, how wind is spread in time is often more important than average strength. A steady wind with limited seasonal and diurnal variation is vastly preferable over a far stronger wind that peaks during certain periods of the year. As such, certain areas of the south might be better than raw wind atlas data suggest.

          • Sometimes “We made it here” counts a lot in decision making.

            It’s also probably easier, perhaps cheaper, to install turbines locally as opposed to stringing new transmission.

          • Has that ever been studied in detail? The cost of grid upgrades is significant, but so is the cost of placing wind turbines in a suboptimal location.

            As for your first point: “cheap” usually outweights “made here” in the mind of the general public. And not having to put wind turbines in your constituency avoids angry NIMBY’s (a problem everywhere) and angry coal industry workers (a problem in much of the south).

            In short: we’re both making educated guesses here.

          • The wind resources at 96 to 110 meters is not suboptimal. It’s pretty good – look at the map.

            You may not understand the mindset in the US SE. Us vs. “them” often overrides clear thinking.

            There’s no coal mining in the south. Only in the boarder states.

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