Online industry magazine Renewable Energy World declared in a recent article that the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) “kneecaps” the renewable energy industry, inaccurately arguing that 3,162 square miles of development focus areas is not enough for the industry. This is my attempt to deconstruct the article’s overall lack of understanding of the DRECP and the state of renewable energy in the California desert:
Claim 1: The energy industry will be handicapped by the DRECP because 80 percent of the development focus areas are on private lands, and it is too difficult for the industry to acquire and develop private lands:
Response: This is not consistent with facts on the ground. There are nearly 4,000 megawatts of wind and solar projects approved, under construction or operational on non-federal lands in the DRECP area, indicating that industry has easily acquired and developed private lands. These include projects with a capacity of hundreds of megawatts built on already-disturbed lands. I have previously covered some of these projects on this blog. Renewable Energy World should examine Volume IV, page IV.25-8 of the DRECP cumulative analysis, which lists dozens of these projects.
And the DRECP still leaves over 570 square miles of development focus areas on federal lands – that is enough space on BLM land alone to accommodate tens of thousands of megawatts of renewable energy projects if every acre were to be developed. (The DRECP assumes that you can build about one megawatt of solar for every 7.1 acres of land – see Appendix F of the DRECP). As I mentioned in a previous blog post, the DRECP designates way more development focus areas than would be needed to meet the 20,000 megawatt target.
Claim 2: Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) – such as parabolic trough or solar power tower technology – is particularly hard hit by the DRECP.
Response: Access to land has not been a significant limiting factor for CSP projects. CSP has been hit by the fact that that CSP projects are more expensive than photovoltaic solar projects. Some CSP projects approved by regulators were later scrapped because of the costs, and converted to photovoltaic projects.
Access to land has not, and will not be a big problem for CSP, which has been built on private and federal lands. The Abengoa Solana and Mojave Solar projects in Arizona and California, respectively, have a combined generating capacity of over 500 megawatts using parabolic trough solar technology. Both were built on private lands. The 250 megawatt Genesis Solar power project was built on BLM lands in the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone, and uses parabolic trough technology.
And once again showing how little research went into Renewable Energy World’s article, claims that the DRECP handicaps solar power tower technology are contradicted by facts on the ground. The DRECP will establish a development focus area where BrightSource continues to explore plans to build the large Hidden Hills solar power tower project (on private lands, by the way). BrightSource Energy also has dibs on two other rights-of-way on federal lands in the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone – Palen and Sonoran West. BrightSource had to withdraw its plans to build the Palen project because it could not secure sufficient financing with the looming expiration of federal tax credit, even though CEC and BLM were set to approve the project.
Claim 3: The California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) is concerned that not enough lands identified as development focus areas are actually available for wind energy.
Response: I have addressed this before. CalWEA believes that it has the right to nearly every square inch of the desert, and acts like it is a neglected child that has not been given its fair share. The wind industry has industrialized over 70 square miles of the desert region, and in the western Mojave Desert the industry has built one of the largest wind energy centers in the entire world. One of the biggest limiting factors for wind energy in the desert region will be conflicts between the Department of Defense and wind operators because turbines interfere with the testing of radars and weapons. If Renewable Energy World had been paying attention to the DRECP process in 2012 and 2013, they would have noticed that these concerns made wind development difficult, if not impossible, over a significant portion of the DRECP area.
Before the wind industry gobbled up 70 square miles of land, the military laid claim to much more of the desert at Edwards Air Force Base, the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, Fort Irwin, Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, and the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range. These bases also interact with bases in Arizona and Nevada for testing and training. In other words, CalWEA wants to cut in line in front of the military industrial complex, which itself has already clashed with conservation goals and popular outdoor recreation in the desert. In other words, get back in line CalWEA.
The wind industry’s impacts on birds and bats is another limiting factors, and some of the places that the industry would like to develop in the desert host healthy populations of protected golden eagles. No industry should be given a blank check to destroy natural treasures (see below).
Claim 4: Drought caused by climate change is killing wildlife, so we should build renewable energy projects even if they kill wildlife. It’s worth the sacrifice.
Response: The reason climate change is a problem is that human society consumes energy and natural resources with little regard for the consequences or for sustainability. Arguing that we should just ignore the impacts of the renewable energy industry on biodiversity would be a continuation of this same broken paradigm. It is the same twisted logic that the far right would use after a terrorist attack – we are under threat, so therefore we should give up our civil liberties to make our society safer. It sets up a false dichotomy that suggests we can only have clean energy if we jeopardize biodiversity. This is not true, and one of the initial drivers of the DRECP was to fix the idea that the industry must have access to every corner of the desert in order to be successful. As I have mentioned above, renewable energy projects are popping up all over the desert, and the smarter and more flexible companies know how to find places to build projects on already-disturbed lands with less impact on wildlife.
Claim 5: Estimates of bird deaths at solar power tower projects are “faulty.”
Response: Usually an industry-sponsored publication is not the best place for reliable coverage of scientific studies that are critical of that same industry, so there should be no surprise here. Renewable Energy World’s cursory look at the complex issue of bird deaths at solar power tower projects only exhibits the publication’s scientific illiteracy, and the publication relies principally on quotes from industry officials to criticize research into avian mortality. The author attempts to challenge a renowned wildlife expert who has been published in dozens of peer-reviewed studies and reports by stating that he misleadingly inflates the estimated number of annual bird deaths at the Ivanpah Solar project, which the researcher pegged at 28,000 for the upper range of his estimate.
Renewable Energy World notes that only a few hundred dead birds have been found at Ivanpah, and concludes that therefore the study suggesting thousands of birds may have died must be inaccurate. Without belaboring the details, the Renewable Energy World author seems to not understand that researchers looking for dead birds do not always find all of the birds that have died. (If you want a thorough examination of the numbers and the science, check out this excellent KCET ReWire piece). How do we know how many birds died as a result of the Horizon Deepwater oil spill? Did we go out and find every single bird carcass? No, we studied smaller areas or populations, considered other factors and biases, and produced a potential range of global impacts, called an estimate. (And no, just because the oil industry kills birds does not justify our society killing even more birds in a different region – a greater harm does not excuse a lesser harm).
Hopefully Renewable Energy World can introduce a little more nuance and sophistication into its writing on these topics.