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.
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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