Hundreds of square miles of Southern California desert, both public and privately owned, could be targeted for renewable energy development under a comprehensive plan balancing state clean-power mandates with efforts to conserve wild habitat.
State and federal officials are currently providing a sneak preview of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan that’s designed to speed the development of large-scale solar, wind and geothermal plants with the least possible environmental impact.
“The whole concept under that plan is to provide for renewable development while ensuring that the population of native plant and animals within that area are still going to be conserved over the long term,” explained Jane Hendron, spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, one of four government agencies leading the effort.
The plan would cover portions of eastern San Diego County and stretch across much of Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
It’s an area roughly the size of Indiana or Maine.
Developers who follow the agreed-upon provisions would enjoy greater assurances when conflicts arise with a list of sensitive desert species.
The list, now 73-species long, already is a point of contention among scientists and stakeholders. Only the California Condor is considered untouchable.
Several national environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Agency support the plan’s general approach over the current patchwork of land use and environmental regulations guiding the state’s renewable energy boom.
Input from the public is being solicited through Jan. 23. Architects of the plan will hold a day-long web presentation for the public on Jan. 9.
Public concerns will help shape the official draft of the Environmental Impact Statement, due out in the summer 2013, when a formal comment period begins.
Six working versions of the plan were published in late December – along with a seventh option that would abandon the effort.
Alternatives run the gamut from confining development largely to land already disturbed by agricultural, industrial and other human activities to another giving developers “maximum geographic and technology flexibility.”
Yet another alternative would cluster more development in the West Mohave Desert, achieving greater efficiencies by generating power closer to the Los Angeles Basin – but also concentrating greater environmental harm in that region.
Other agencies spearheading the effort are the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Game and the federal Bureau of Land Management.
A list of stakeholders participating in the effort runs nearly four pages long, encompassing major national environmental groups, investor-owned utilities, solar- and wind-industry associations, international solar developers, Native American interests, municipal and county governments and off-road vehicle groups.
The effort also has relied on an independent panel of scientific advisers – that issued a scathing critique of the plan in August, describing a lack of scientific rigor, incomprehensible writing and the unexplained omissions of sensitive species.
Dave Harlow, director of the plan, said those concerns are being addressed by adding more in-house and outside scientific vetting. Portions of the plan are being reviewed and rewritten.
Up to one-third of the plan area could ultimately receive stronger conservation guarantees, according to summary documents.
To meet California’s renewable energy mandates, new development would directly impact somewhere between 200,000 acres, an area slightly larger than the City of San Diego, to 350,000 acres, almost half the size of Rhode Island, Harlow said in a written statement.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding