Since the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the United States has fitfully moved toward energy independence based on national security and economic concerns.
But today the emphasis on renewable-energy development is driven as much by concerns over global warming as by self-sufficiency.
“Most importantly, I believe in energy security for our country,” said Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley. “It’s crucial that we develop a diversified domestic energy supply. We need natural gas, renewables and other forms of energy, and we need them produced here at home.”
But Cook also emphasized that “the key is making sure that there is an avenue for the local communities to have input” on energy projects and their impacts.
At the forefront of domestic development is California, and the Mojave Desert forms part of the nation’s so-called New Energy Frontier that champions renewable-energy projects in five categories.
In a recent count, there are 28 commercial solar- and wind-energy projects on tap for the region on Bureau of Land Management or unincorporated county land. But that only scratches the gritty surface.
Why the interest to build?
“We have a choice. We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy,” President Barack Obama said two months after taking office in 2009.
“In 2010, the Secretary of the Interior (Ken Salazar) approved the first large-scale solar energy plants ever to be built on public lands, six of which were in California,” the Bureau of Land Management writes on its website.
Two major solar energy projects have been approved so far on BLM land in San Bernardino County: BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System and First Solar’s Stateline Solar project. A third similar project, Abengoa Solar’s Mojave Solar facility near Barstow, was built on previously disturbed private land but has a BLM transmission component.
State Senate Bill X 1-2, building on a goal set by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and signed in 2011 by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., mandated a 33-percent Renewables Portfolio Standard for California’s electric energy production.
“This bill will bring many important benefits to California, including stimulating investment in green technologies in the state, creating tens of thousands of new jobs, improving local air quality, promoting energy independence and reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Brown said at the time.
Progress toward the RPS by the state’s three large investor-owned utilities stood at 22.7 percent of their 2013 retail electricity sales, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Individually: Southern California Edison, 21.6 percent; Pacific Gas and Electric, 23.8 percent; San Diego Gas and Electric, 23.6 percent. They are supposed to hit 25 percent by the end of 2016.
A memorandum of understanding signed in January 2012 by Brown and Salazar expanded an existing state-federal partnership to develop utility-scale solar energy projects and more than 130 renewable power projects in California, according to the Department of the Interior.
As of June, there were six wind-energy applications and three test authorizations on file at BLM’s Barstow Field Office, which oversees 3 million acres of public land in San Bernardino County. Two of those projects are in the development phase of approvals – Silurian Valley Wind, 10 miles north of Baker, and North Peak Wind, in the Lucerne Valley/Apple Valley highlands. Developers say they would deliver a combined 286 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 77,000 homes.
The Barstow BLM office also is handling applications for the Soda Mountain Solar Project, to provide up to 358 MW, and the Coolwater-Lugo Transmission Project.
But forthcoming regional land-use plans such as the state’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the San Bernardino County Partnership for Renewable Energy & Conservation, aka SPARC, an initiative to amend renewable-energy portions of the General Plan, are still in the works. DRECP is described by state officials as “an unprecedented collaborative effort between the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also known as the Renewable Energy Action Team.”
Some High Desert residents have concerns about how these projects will affect local communities or wilderness areas, and their worries are intensified by the fact that big-picture plans aren’t yet in place.
“We have these long-term plans that are not even finished and they’re moving ahead on these projects,” said Lorrie Steely, organizer of the Victor Valley-based Mojave Communities Conservation Collaborative.
The approved and nearly complete Mojave Solar power project is on private land with a BLM transmission component. It is expected to provide 280 MW of power, enough for more than 84,000 households, the company said.
Mojave Solar comes with a $1.6 billion price tag and a $1.2 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy. Abengoa also made use of a $1.4 billion loan guarantee for an earlier project outside of Gila Bend, Arizona.
The Department of Energy offered $10 billion in loan guarantees in 2009, in concert with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Abengoa Solar’s two projects made use of about 25 percent of the fund and BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System near the Nevada border accepted another $1.6 billion in loan guarantees.
Another round of $4 billion in DOE guarantees was announced July 3, “intended to support the first commercial-scale deployments of the next wave of innovative clean energy technologies” that reduce greenhouse gases.
Seven solar projects have been approved in unincorporated areas of San Bernardino County, generating 49 MW of electricity.
“San Bernardino County has done more than its fair share in meeting renewable energy mandates,” 1st District Supervisor Robert Lovingood said. “The county leads the state in solar-thermal energy production. At the county level, we have reached out to protect constituents from policies put into effect in 2009. After I was elected, the Board of Supervisors adopted a solar ordinance that, for the first time, brought a balanced approach to proposed renewable projects in our county.”
Ten other solar-power projects are conditionally approved, on hold or under review (totaling 140 MW) and five applications (39.5 MW total) denied by the Planning Commission are being appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
The New Energy Frontier is being developed. For information about adding your voice to the SPARC process, which is in Phase 3 of seven phases before implementation by early next year, go to www.sparcforum.org.
The DRECP’s Draft Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement is expected to be released in late summer or early autumn. Some comments are still being accepted at occasional meetings of the BLM’s DRECP Subcommittee for advice-only presentation to the BLM Desert District manager.
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