An unprecedented federal blueprint to determine where to build utility-scale solar and wind power plants in the California desert is scheduled for release Tuesday after more than five years of planning.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are scheduled to appear in Palm Springs, along with California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird and other officials, to announce the widely anticipated draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
The plan, kept under tight wraps by state and local officials for much of the past year, is 8,000 pages long with a 100-page executive summary. It will offer guidelines for building large alternative-energy plants on 22.5 million acres of public and private land in California.
The goal is to prevent some of the mistakes that were made during the “solar gold rush” in the Mojave Desert during the first year of the Obama administration, when solar developers, backed by billions in federal stimulus money, put giant industrial facilities on relatively undisturbed public lands in an effort to combat climate change and wean the country from fossil fuels.
The most prominent example of these facilities is the 5.4-square-mile Ivanpah solar “power tower” plant that opened this year in the Mojave, built by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy with investment investment partners Google of Mountain View and NRG Energy of Houston. The $2.2 billion plant was built with a $1.6 billion federal loan and went online last fall.
A report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife investigators found that the concentrated solar beams kill birds and other wildlife. BrightSource said the deaths were overstated and that domestic house cats kill many times more birds annually than the company’s plant does.
Environmental groups hope the new plan will protect millions of acres of unspoiled land and direct solar development to already disturbed areas such as degraded farmland. But expect plenty of controversy, depending on exactly what gets protected and what gets green-lighted for development.
Conservation groups led by the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife said the plan is “an unparalleled opportunity for citizens and counties to help determine the clean energy future of the desert and … ultimately the West. While identifying the right places for renewable energy development, the (federal plan) will also conserve areas important for wildlife, wilderness, recreation and other values across the California desert.”
Environmental groups will be watching closely to see if the plan signals approval for a 23-square-mile solar and wind facility plant by Iberdola Renewables in the remote and undisturbed Silurian Valley near Death Valley National Park and a 3,000-acre solar facility at Soda Mountain near the Mojave National Preserve. If those areas are not protected, the plan is likely to face stiff opposition from environmental groups and local residents who widely oppose such projects.
Many desert residents argue that the Obama administration should be focusing less on large-scale plants and more on rooftop solar, including its more recent iterations such as solar covers for parking lots and other public areas.
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