Regulators have released the long-awaited Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an 8,000-page document that could reshape the desert’s energy landscape and set aside millions of acres for conservation and recreation.
Speaking at a wind farm in North Palm Springs on Tuesday morning, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the draft plan’s release “a major milestone” in the effort to fight climate change while preserving critical desert species and landscapes. The goal of the draft 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 constant source of tension in the desert.
“This is the first landscape-level illustration of how we can plan our land use holistically,” Jewell told The Desert Sun before Tuesday’s event. “There are areas that are perfect to develop and areas that are too ripe to develop. Some of these sites are sacred.”
Jewell described the draft plan as unprecedented in scope and scale, emphasizing that a long list of people – including government agencies, renewable energy companies, environmental groups, and Native American tribes – have spent more than five years collaborating on the document. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Rancho Mirage, described the document as “carefully written and based on enormous feedback.”
“I treasure the desert, and we know the beauty … that all needs protection as we move toward alternative energy,” Boxer said at Tuesday’s event held at an AES Southland wind farm in North Palm Springs. “What potential we have here for clean, renewable energy that helps reduce carbon pollution, creates good-paying jobs and strengthens our local economies.”
The plan is likely to transform how solar, wind, geothermal and transmission projects are sited across the desert. It designates zones for renewable energy development and conservation across more than 22.5 million acres of public and private land in the Mojave and Colorado/Sonoran deserts, spanning seven California counties: Riverside, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego.
The plan’s “preferred alternative” sets aside more than 2 million acres for renewable energy development in an effort to provide space for up to 20,000 megawatts of new generation by 2040. Solar, wind and geothermal projects would be fast-tracked across these so-called “development-focused areas,” benefiting from streamlined environmental review and permitting processes.
The preferred alternative designates more than 6.1 million acres as federal conservation lands, on top of the more than 7.6 million acres of pre-existing conservation lands within the study area. Renewable energy development would be prohibited or extremely limited in these areas. The preferred alternative also identifies 183,000 acres as a “study area,” some of which will become conservation land and some of which will be opened to renewable energy development.
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 – took the lead on crafting the plan, which outlines six potential roadmaps for land use in the desert. Those agencies designated one of the plans their “preferred alternative” because they believe it best meets the goal of advancing renewable energy development while conserving critical resources.
While the plan covers all renewable energy development, its biggest impacts in Riverside County could fall on solar power. 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 development-focused areas outlined in the plan would supplant the Riverside East and Imperial East federal solar zones, which were finalized in 2012. While those zones were intended to fast-track large-scale solar development by identifying areas with little environmental value, many projects have nonetheless been slowed by rigorous environmental review processes.
In other words, balancing renewable energy development with conservation has proven more difficult than regulators initially imagined. But officials are confident the new plan’s broad scope and big-picture perspective will help regulators promote renewable development while protecting key environmental resources.
“All projects have some form of impact, whether it’s avian life or ground disturbance,” Jewell said in her remarks Tuesday. “How do we mitigate in a smart way? What are the areas that really need to be set aside that are too special to develop?”
The energy plan’s preferred alternative significantly expands the areas covered by the Riverside East and Imperial East solar zones, opening up more federal land in both counties to solar development. It also opens more land to geothermal development in Imperial County – including land around the Salton Sea, which Boxer hailed Tuesday as a critical step toward funding the restoration of the receding lake.
“Making portions of the Salton Sea a renewable energy development-focused area sends a strong signal about the sea, which we must protect. We have no choice,” Boxer said. “We have to protect it because of this God-given environment, for public health reasons and for economic reasons.”
The plan’s preferred alternative does not, however, create new zones for wind development in either Riverside or Imperial County, with few areas opened to wind overall. Nancy Rader – executive director of the California Wind Energy Association – said in a statement the industry’s “worst fears are being realized.”
“All five DRECP Plan Alternatives would largely end most wind energy development in California,” Rader said in a statement. “If climate change is an ‘existential challenge,’ as Governor (Jerry) Brown stated at the U.N. this week, then why is California aiming to put its best, carbon-free wind resources off limits?”
Environmental groups, meanwhile, have wondered whether the energy plan provides a good enough mechanism for protecting designated conservation areas. Some have questioned the regulatory agencies’ calculation that as much as 20,000 megawatts of new renewable energy development in the desert will be needed to meet California’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals, calling the figure highly speculative.
Still other environmental groups argue that all large-scale renewable energy projects do unacceptable damage to desert ecosystems and landscapes, and that policymakers should instead promote distributed generation, including rooftop solar panels. Boxer tore into that argument Tuesday.
“If there are people who are concerned that there won’t be enough environmental protection, let them be specific,” Boxer said. “We do know development should not be allowed in certain parts of the desert, where it doesn’t make sense, but we’re going to allow it where it does make sense. And that’s the beauty of this plan.”
Hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts are likely to applaud the draft plan released Tuesday, which sets nearly 3 million new acres for recreation across every action alternative. Randy Banis – a member of the Bureau of Land Management’s Desert Advisory Council – said the plan protects off-highway vehicle roads from renewable energy development for the first time.
State and federal regulators have spent nearly six years crafting the plan, which has faced continual delays. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the initiative in 2008, with a timeline that called for a draft to be released 2010 and approved in 2012.
Tuesday’s event in North Palm Springs – which also featured remarks from Rep. Raul Ruiz, Rep. Grace Napolitano, and California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas – does not mark the end of the desert planning process. A public comment period on the document will last at least 90 days, with events being held in each of the seven affected counties.
Assistant Interior Secretary Janice Schneider, who oversees land and minerals management, said she believes the plan’s preferred alternative “strikes the right balance” between energy development and conservation. But the feedback regulators receive over the next few months, she added, will be critical.
“This is an opportunity for everybody to say, ‘Did we get it right? Did we not get it right? How should it be changed?'” Schneider said. “And that’s what the opportunity is for the public going forward.”
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