Regulators will release a draft of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan next week, giving Riverside County its first look at a document that could transform how solar, wind, geothermal and transmission projects are sited in the desert.
The goal of the long-awaited plan – known as the DRECP – is to establish a new framework for balancing renewable energy development with the protection of environmental and cultural resources, a source of constant tension in the desert. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell will appear at an event in North Palm Springs on Tuesday, almost certainly to discuss the plan or announce its impending release.
The plan will designate zones for renewable energy development and conservation across 22.5 million acres of public and private land in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, spanning seven counties: Riverside, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego.
Two state and two federal agencies – the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the federal Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services – have spent nearly six years crafting the conservation plan, which has faced continual delays. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched it in 2008, with a timeline that called for a draft to be released 2010 and approved in 2012.
But while that timeline has long since been abandoned, BLM spokeswoman Dana Wilson confirmed to The Desert Sun that a draft will be published next week. That confirmation followed a public meeting Wednesday at which Vicki Campbell – the conservation plan’s program manager for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – outlined the components of the document, in order to prepare members of the BLM’s conservation plan advisory group to navigate the upcoming draft.
Campbell revealed few specifics about the plan Wednesday, but she did say it would allow for up to 20,000 megawatts of new renewable energy development by 2040. Energy projects would be allowed only in “development-focused areas,” where they would receive streamlined review, approval and permitting processes.
The 20,000-megawatt figure “is not a target. It is not a mandate,” Campbell said. “It is a planning tool that we used to make sure that whatever we were designing for development-focused areas, that there was adequate room for 20,000 megawatts to be sited there.”
The draft plan will also designate conservation and recreation areas, where renewable energy development would not be allowed. Regulators examined 23 kinds of environmental resources – including species, groundwater and scenic value – in making their land-use recommendations, and Campbell said they considered the impacts of climate change on several of those resources.
While the plan will cover all renewable energy development, its biggest impacts in Riverside County could fall on solar development. Many large-scale solar projects have drawn the ire of environmental and Native American groups that have argued that poorly located projects can kill wildlife, degrade critical ecosystems, ruin scenic vistas, and destroy Native American cultural sites.
The plan would supplant the federal Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) for solar development that established the Riverside East and Imperial East solar energy zones. The PEIS – which was released as a draft in 2010 and finalized in 2012 – has thus far served as the guiding document for siting solar projects in the desert.
But while that plan was meant to fast-track large-scale solar development by identifying areas with little environmental value, many projects have been slowed by rigorous environmental review processes, or hamstrung by the costs of environmental mitigation. Balancing conservation with renewable energy development in the desert has proven more difficult than regulators initially imagined.
“These projects, no matter what, are going to have significant impacts, wherever they go,” Alfredo Martinez-Morales, managing director of UC Riverside’s Southern California Research Initiative for Solar Energy, said last month. “A lot of people assume that because they’re located in the desert, the impact is minimal, but it’s been shown now that that’s not the case. The desert is a thriving environment, and it’s home to very unique animals and plants.”
Campbell said that while the conservation plan leaves the Imperial East solar zone “basically intact,” several of the options it presents involve reconfiguring the Riverside East solar zone. Only one large-scale solar facility has come online in Riverside East, NextEra’s 250-megawatt Genesis project.
Some environmental groups have opposed any large-scale solar energy development in the desert, but others are more optimistic that the conservation plan could strike an acceptable balance between conservation and renewable energy. Joan Taylor, conservation chairwoman for the local chapter of the Sierra Club, said she hopes the plan will “steer renewable energy development – which is extremely land consumptive – to disturbed or degraded lands, and away from natural public lands in the desert.”
“It’s going to have to set aside other lands for preservation to compensate for some of the industrialization with big solar and big wind,” Taylor said. “One of the key concerns is that the federal government hasn’t articulated how those lands, that are set aside to compensate for destruction, would be preserved for the long term.”
Trade groups for the solar and wind industries have expressed concern that the conservation plan could create onerous obstacles to renewable energy development. The California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) said in an August 2012 newsletter that early conservation plan proposals floated that summer “were startling in their implications,” with the state’s best remaining wind resources declared off limits.
“I’m not that optimistic that things will have changed that much from when we issued those statements,” CalWEA executive director Nancy Rader said. “But we really need to see the draft, and see if the range of alternatives includes one that’s minimally acceptable to us.”
The wind industry’s greatest concern, Rader said, is that “the sites we’ll be allowed to study will be very restricted.”
“No projects are going to be impact-free, but if we don’t have a lot of land to look around and evaluate, it’s very hard to find project sites that work,” she said.
The public comment period for the conservation plan will last at least 90 days, Campbell said, with regulators holding events in each of the seven affected counties. This Tuesday’s event, which will be held at AES Southland’s wind farm in North Palm Springs, begins at 11:30 a.m.
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