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Desert energy plan would devote 2 million acres to renewables

A long-awaited master planning document in the works since 2008 that will guide renewable energy development in the California desert is out in draft form today, and residents of the West Mojave and some other parts of the desert will not be happy.

The draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, or DRECP, which attempts to craft a region-wide development framework for 22 million acres of California desert in six counties, would designate more than two million acres as renewable energy Development Focus Areas (DFAs), mainly clustered in the western Mojave, the Barstow-Victorville area, eastern Imperial County, and the I-10 corridor in Riverside County.

DFAs, where permitting for renewable energy development would be fast-tracked, would also be created near Tecopa, Lucerne Valley, and Ridgecrest, as well as a geothermal-oriented DFA in the southern Owens Valley near Olancha. The goal is to promote the construction of at least 20,000 megawatts of new wind, solar, and geothermal power generating capacity in the DRECP plan area by 2040.

The document, downloadable here, is massive – and we’ll be poring over it in the next few days and reporting back.

But at a first glance, the draft’s Preferred Alternative (out of five provided in the draft) would seem to hold the potential to radically alter a broad swath of the Mojave Desert from Lucerne Valley to Ridgecrest, along with almost the entire eastern shore of the Salton Sea in Imperial County and the federally designated Riverside East Solar Energy Zone.

The Preferred Alternative would also designate 4.9 million acres of public land in the desert as conservation areas to be managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Much of that acreage would be protected by shifting agency policy rather than by the force of law, and the maps of protected areas would seem at first glance to overlap significantly with DFAs.

Earlier drafts of the DRECP showed possible DFAs in the ecologically sensitive areas of East San Diego County and the Morongo Basin in San Bernardino County. The Preferred Alternative excludes those areas from the list of DFAs, but the BLM has reminded desert residents that the preferred alternative may well change before the final DRECP is released, possibly sometime next year.

Environmentalist reaction to the document will likely mount as more people are able to read the cumbersome document, but a few groups put out anticipatory press releases and blog posts in the days running up to the release.

“We also call on the administration to give at least equal weight to providing new incentives for significantly increasing distributed solar power,” said Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Significantly increasing solar power close to the source of energy use such as rooftops, parking lots and community-oriented renewable energy projects is also critically needed to rapidly phase out fossil fuel energy and reduce emissions. Distributed solar is a win for climate change, clean energy and our treasured desert.”

Meanwhile, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Laura Wisland published a blog post on September 17 lauding the plan. “By identifying the most suitable locations for renewable energy projects, the DRECP will bring more efficiency and certainty to the project permitting process and help us meet our clean energy goals,” wrote Wisland.

“The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan demonstrates a positive shift toward planning for both conservation and development simultaneously and at a broad scale,” said Dan Smuts, California regional director for The Wilderness Society. “The release of the Plan will create an opportunity for counties, state and federal agencies, conservationists, and other interests to work together to plan for the future of this remarkable region. The draft plan will need fine-tuning but we applaud the goal to plan ahead for the future of the desert.”

A public comment period on the draft DRECP begins September 26, and will run until January 9.