For six years, state and federal officials have worked on a sweeping plan that would promote renewable energy development while protecting California’s pristine and largely undisturbed landscapes.
But when the 8,000-page plan was finally released, its proposals prompted as much criticism as they did relief.
Local conservation groups have blasted the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan as the latest, greatest threat to California’s iconic deserts, arguing regulators are trying to open too much undisturbed land to development.
And wind advocates, who might be expected to benefit from the plan, have said it is so restrictive that it will hinder their industry’s potential growth in California.
Not everyone is as critical.
Geothermal advocates see the document as a victory for their industry, but even some of the plan’s strongest supporters have as many questions as they do answers. National environmental groups in particular – while optimistic that the plan strikes a reasonable balance between development and conservation – have wondered whether there will be too great a burden on the desert.
The final plan will impact the future of renewable energy development in eastern Riverside County, around the Salton Sea and in other regions of California. It also has the potential to set new standards for the rest of the country.
“As in many things, California leads the nation when it comes to renewables,” said Helen O’Shea, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Renewable Energy Project.
“In terms of the sheer scale of our market, and what we can accomplish in terms of replacing fossil fuels with renewables, I think we could have a significant impact at a level way beyond our state.”
At its core, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan seeks to minimize the conflict between renewable energy and conservation by designating some areas for development and some areas for protection.
More specifically, it provides an incentive to build renewable energy projects in “development focus areas,” where regulators have determined there are few if any sensitive environmental resources.
Few areas have more at stake than Southern California, which boasts some of the best solar, wind and geothermal resources in the world.
Still, there remains serious disagreement about how best to divvy up the desert, a fight that will be on full display over the next year as regulators work to finalize the massive document.
The agencies that crafted the plan will hold a series of public meetings over the next month to solicit input. It also was a topic at the Southern California Energy Summit, which kicked off Thursday in Palm Springs.
‘There was so much conflict’
When President Barack Obama pledged at the United Nations last month that America will sharply cut its carbon emissions, he didn’t mention the desert. But even as he spoke, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was at a wind farm in north Palm Springs, preparing to announce the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan.
Unprecedented in scope and scale, the plan lays the ground rules for the next quarter-century of solar, wind and geothermal development across 22.5 million acres of California desert.
It’s widely seen as a critical step toward meeting the state’s long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Before the event in north Palm Springs, Jewell called the plan’s release “a major milestone” in the effort to fight climate change while preserving the desert.
“This is the first landscape-level illustration of how we can plan our land use holistically,” she said. “There are areas that are perfect to develop and areas that are too ripe to develop. Some of these sites are sacred.”
Renewable energy has long been a priority of the Obama administration, but locating wind, solar and geothermal projects on federal land has proven more difficult than expected.
While the Bureau of Land Management has approved 52 projects on federal over the last five years – more than half of them solar plants – dozens if not hundreds of proposals have been bogged down by financial obstacles, regulatory uncertainty and rigorous environmental reviews.
California’s deserts are a case in point.
The Mojave, Colorado and Sonoran deserts have some of the best sunlight in the world, but many large-scale solar projects have stalled or been dropped.
Experts have blamed financial woes, but note that such projects also have been met with stiff opposition from environmental groups.
Such groups have attacked projects that they say could disrupt ecosystems, ruin scenic vistas and kill huge numbers of birds and tortoises, among other species.
“It’s just so unfortunate the way our renewable energy policy was rolled out in this country,” said April Sall, conservation director for the Wildlands Conservancy. “There was so much conflict early on, and it was justified.”
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan responds to that conflict by identifying areas that regulators have deemed relatively safe for development.
Projects proposed for development focus areas would benefit from fast-tracked review processes and greater certainty of approval, and developers who apply to build projects in these areas would know from the start what kinds of environmental mitigation measures they might have to fund.
“With this plan, developers will be able to know upfront – what are the survey requirements they would need to carry out on this particular part of this development focus area, and what mitigation would be required,” said California Energy Commission member Karen Douglas, who helped write the plan.
“By knowing this upfront, there’s more certainty for both the industry and the environmental outcomes.”
With regulators taking an average of five to seven years to approve geothermal plants, Karl Gawell – executive director of the Geothermal Energy Agency – said his industry has a lot to gain from a streamlined permitting process.
“Geothermal is clearly at the high end of the processing time,” he said. “It seems like every time we turn around, we have to do another environmental review.”
‘The drumbeat is starting to be heard’
The draft plan, released in September, outlines five alternatives for how to divide the desert between renewable energy development, conservation and recreation.
The option regulators have dubbed their “preferred alternative” dedicates just over two million acres to renewable energy development. It also will serve as the starting point for public debate.
While hardly any expert has analyzed all of the development focus areas yet, representatives of many environmental groups said they like what they’ve seen.
For years, they’ve urged regulators to promote development on land already disturbed by agriculture or industrial activity, rather than on untouched landscapes. The preferred alternative, they say, largely does that.
“Those of us who have been working on renewable policy for a very long time, at some level, should feel a validation,” said David Lamfrom, associate director of the National Park Conservation Association’s California Desert Program. “The drumbeat that we have been drumming for so long is starting to be heard and followed.”
The plan doesn’t give environmental groups everything they want.
Regulators rejected a proposal to shift all development to privately owned, previously disturbed land, saying this option would lead to too many conflicts with county governments and private landowners.
Kim Delfino, director of California programs for Defenders of Wildlife, described some areas mapped in the plan as large “blobs” that stakeholders still need to examine in more detail.
“They definitely need to refine those two million acres further,” Delfino said, referring to the agencies that wrote the plan. “But with that being said – in choosing where to put the blobs, they did a pretty good job.”
Advocates for the solar and geothermal industries have a lot to like as well.
The preferred alternative opens up 1.7 million acres for solar development across Riverside and six other counties covered by the plan, as well as nearly 250,000 acres for geothermal development in Imperial and Inyo counties.
In eastern Riverside County, the federal solar energy established two years ago remains largely intact, while much of Imperial County – including the area south of the Salton Sea – is designated for geothermal development.
Only one new geothermal plant has opened by the Salton Sea since 2000, but the revenue that additional development could generate is considered crucial for funding the restoration of the dying sea.
Gawell, of the Geothermal Energy Agency, said his industry did well in the draft plan, getting approximately the same number of development acres in every alternative because natural geothermal hotspots are so well-defined.
But he questioned whether the new geothermal hotspots that could open up as the Salton Sea recedes will be included in a development focus area.
“You either want those resources to be included in the plan, or you want the plan to specify a very clear process by which they are examined,” he said.
‘Where are your priorities?’
Unlike the solar and geothermal industries, advocates for wind power have been up in arms over the renewable energy plan.
Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, said the plan vastly underestimates the need for wind power and designates few development areas with strong enough wind to be economically viable.
The California Wind Energy Association, Rader said, estimates that 12,500 megawatts of wind energy is needed in the desert by 2040 to meet the state’s climate goals. But in the draft renewable energy plan, even the best alternative for wind only estimates a need for 5,800 megawatts of generation by 2040.
Rader argued that regulators are banking too heavily on geothermal development, even though it’s significantly more expensive than wind and solar development.
Those costs are a key reason that little geothermal development has taken place by the Salton Sea in recent years, despite the area’s huge potential output.
“You can’t predict that this geothermal resource is going to be developed – it’s very expensive. It’s very risky,” Rader said. “If it doesn’t get developed, you’re going to need a lot of wind. We didn’t want them to constrain the market.”
But throughout the drafting of the renewable energy plan, environmental groups have criticized the wind industry for overreach.
“The conservation and recreation communities aren’t asking for everything to be wilderness,” Sall said. “It’s been really frustrating because they’re not willing to pare down their proposal.”
The key point of contention between wind advocates and environmental groups is wind development’s impacts on wildlife.
Both sides agree there’s not enough definitive research on the subject, although wind advocates highlight a 2011 study showing that wind farms seem to have little impact on desert tortoises.
Regulators, though, say wind farms could pose serious threats to golden eagles, burrowing owls and certain kinds of bats, among other species.
Douglas, from the state energy commission, said regulators faced “particular challenges with finding areas for wind development,” partly due to wildlife conflicts and partly because many of the state’s best wind resources have already been developed over the last 30 years.
V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology, sees a middle ground for wind.
As technology has improved, White noted, many developers have taken to “repowering” their old wind plants, tearing down outdated turbines and replacing them with new ones that can generate more electricity.
“The future of wind in California is going to revolve around the repowering of existing areas, like San Gorgonio,” White said. “There’s more work to be done on wind, but I don’t think it’s dire.”
Rader, though, argued that the dangers posed by climate change necessitate more wind development. She was especially critical of environmental groups for opposing wind projects located close to national parks, saying much of their opposition stems from not wanting wind turbines to interrupt picturesque vistas.
“The planet is burning up, our state is burning up – literally, we’re drying up,” Rader said. “Where are your priorities? We’ve got some choices to make here.”
‘I’m still scratching my head’
Some environmental groups also are concerned about specific places that could be opened to development, including several near the Coachella Valley.
Among those places are “study areas,” which regulators have identified as having strong renewable energy potential but also high conservation value.
The preferred alternative designates 183,000 acres as study areas, meaning state and federal officials will solicit public input and make a final decision later.
One of the study areas in the preferred alternative, in southern San Bernardino County, is about halfway between Route 62 and Interstate 40 – north of the Sheephole Valley Wilderness and south of the Mojave National Preserve.
In the second alternative, several areas north and northwest of Twentynine Palms, in the Pinto Lucerne Valley region, are designated as study areas as well.
“I’m still scratching my head – why are these lands being considered for development?” Delfino asked. “I don’t get that.”
Some groups have argued that regulators should establish a “conservation corridor” between Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park, which would involve closing the above-mentioned areas to development.
Such north-south conservation corridors will become particularly important as climate change progresses, because they will give plants and animals the ability to migrate north or south in search of ideal climate conditions.
On a recent visit to the Iron Mountains, just northeast of Joshua Tree – which would lie in that conservation corridor – Sall described the area’s bighorn sheep, desert tortoises and French-toed lizards, all of which are listed as threatened or endangered in California.
The Iron Mountains area is designated for conservation under all of the draft plan’s alternatives, but its jagged mountains and fragile species border on a proposed study area – not a great combination, in Sall’s view.
Sall also noted that seemingly barren desert ecosystems can sequester carbon, a subject of emerging research. She described the desert as an “upside-down rainforest,” in which the roots of creosote bushes and other plants can store carbon deep underground, keeping it from entering the atmosphere.
While the amount of carbon stored under the desert still isn’t fully understood, Sall criticized regulators for not taking carbon sequestration into account in the renewable energy plan. If tearing up untouched desert landscapes can release significant amounts of carbon, she said, then badly sited renewable energy projects could actually exacerbate climate change.
“The ‘greater good’ argument that they’re using now is short-sighted,” she said. “And it’s not well-informed.”
‘With one hand they giveth, with one hand they taketh away’
Promoting renewable energy is only half of the draft plan. The other half takes a landscape-level approach to conservation, designating millions of acres for protection and outlining a cohesive strategy for mitigating the impacts of renewable energy development.
That kind of big-picture conservation strategy, Secretary Jewell said, is unprecedented.
Addressing the cumulative impacts of renewable energy development, she added, is impossible when regulators evaluate individual projects in a vacuum, mandating tortoise fences or habitat restoration payments and then moving on to the next application.
“We have permitted projects and just said, ‘Let’s mitigate for that project,'” Jewell said. “Let’s now look beyond that and say, ‘Let’s mitigate more holistically. Let’s look at our landscapes, let’s understand our landscapes.'”
The plan outlines a web of overlapping conservation strategies and land designations, part of an effort to protect 37 plant and animal species and 31 natural communities.
Regulators also analyzed how renewable energy development would impact 23 environmental “disciplines,” including air quality, groundwater, Native American cultural sites and outdoor recreation.
Overall, the preferred alternative designates seven million new acres for conservation and more than three million acres for recreation.
Douglas said the plan “creates a long-term durable way of identifying important core populations, identifying needed connectivity, thinking about where there may be very important areas in light of climate change, where species that otherwise might struggle to survive changes to the climate can find refuge.”
The details of how that conservation will work in practice are still murky, even for environmental groups that have dealt with these issues for decades.
But while few are comfortable offering definitive opinions yet, Lamfrom said his impression is that the plan largely preserves the status quo, formally setting aside areas that have traditionally been managed for conservation.
“I think what we’re going to see on the vast majority of those acres that are put aside for conservation will be that existing uses – hiking, recreation, photography, bird-watching – that all of those existing uses will be honored,” Lamfrom said.
Still, concerns have emerged over just how permanent the conservation prescribed by the plan will be.
Some environmental groups have honed in on a memorandum of understanding between the Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which seems to suggest that most designated conservation areas would only be protected for the next 25 years, the time period covered in the plan.
“Once you degrade something like the desert, you remove all the species, and the impact is going to last much longer than the operation of the [renewable energy] project,” Lamfrom said. “It’s not equitable – the impact is going to last a lot longer than the mitigation.”
While sharing those concerns, Delfino points to mitigation measures that actually last decades longer.
“It’s kind of like – with one hand they giveth, with one hand they taketh away,” Delfino said.
Jim Kenna, director of the Bureau of Land Management’s California branch, acknowledged that certain land protections aren’t permanent.
But between the many overlapping conservation designations outlined in the plan – and the number of state and federal agencies involved – it would be extremely difficult, he said, for any of the conservation lands to be opened to development later on.
“It’s hard to think that we should be super-worried about whether or not this conservation will last,” he said. “I think it will.”
‘It takes time to be a pioneer’
The renewable energy planning effort, already entering its seventh year, could stretch well into 2015.
The public comment period will last three months – possibly much longer – after which regulators will consider the public comments and finalize the document.
Even after the document is finished, it could be years before its impacts on the desert are clear. The plan itself does not propose or approve specific projects, and a host of legal and financial factors – including the planned expiration of the 30 percent federal investment tax credit for renewable energy – will help determine whether renewable energy development in the desert thrives or flails.
However the final plan shapes up, its goals and strategies will ripple across future renewable energy planning efforts – and, perhaps, give Obama something to tell the United Nations about before his second term is out.
“It takes time to be a pioneer,” Jewell said. “But what we now have is a road map that can be used in other areas across the country.”
Read the plan
The 8,000 page draft plan – including the 60-page executive summary – can be read in full on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan website.
The public can also explore the maps and data in more detail on the DRECP Gateway.
Public meetings will be held over the next few months in the seven counties impacted by the plan: Riverside, Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego.
The Coachella Valley’s own species and habitat protection plan has been in place since 2008. Locals can give their input on the statewide plan during a Nov. 7 meeting, which starts at 4 p.m. at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert campus.
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