Hundreds of people have signed a petition urging regulators to fundamentally rethink the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, the latest skirmish in an ongoing battle between state regulators and desert protection groups.
The renewable energy plan lays the ground rules for the next quarter-century of solar, wind and geothermal development across 22.5 million acres of California desert. Policymakers, renewable energy advocates and prominent environmental groups have hailed the plan as a landmark in the fight against climate change.
But local activists have pushed back against that narrative, calling the plan an existential threat to the desert’s iconic landscapes and delicate ecosystems. Regulators, their argument goes, should prioritize rooftop solar and other small-scale renewables, rather than massive projects in the desert.
That’s the gist of the new petition, which has garnered more than 600 signatures in the two weeks since it was posted online by David Garmon, president of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy. The petition – titled “We don’t have to sacrifice California’s deserts for renewable energy!” – calls for state regulators to “perform a detailed analysis of rooftop solar” in the renewable energy plan.
“Obviously we have to go in the direction of developing renewable resources. But I think the question is, what is the most intelligent way to do it,” said Garmon, a psychiatrist who has homes in San Diego and Borrego Springs. “And it seems premature to a lot of us not to do a detailed analysis for what’s possible with distributed generation.”
The renewable energy plan was designed to give energy companies breathing room to develop at least 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy in the desert. Regulators set that goal after reviewing the state’s long-term climate goals, projections of future electricity demand, and the potential for greenhouse gas reductions from energy efficiency and distributed generation, including rooftop solar.
Desert preservationists, though, say the plan underestimates the emissions reductions that can be achieved through rooftop solar, energy efficiency and reduced demand. They point to a July study from UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation, which estimates that Los Angeles County alone has more than 19,000 megawatts of rooftop solar potential – just two to three percent of which has been developed.
“If we could generate that much renewable energy in basin – where the energy is going to be used – wouldn’t it make sense to do that, as opposed to generating it in the desert and then trying to run it in 100, 150 miles to the cities?” Garmon asked.
Neil Nadler – a member of the Alliance for Desert Preservation, a grassroots group based in Apple Valley – signed the petition. Nadler, who manages commercial properties, said regulators should create “meaningful and compelling incentives” for individuals and businesses to go solar.
“If the incentives were there, you’d have literally hundreds if not thousands of people like me, who manage commercial properties, doing it overnight,” he said.
Policymakers, though, have far less confidence in distributed generation as an all-encompassing climate change solution.
Rooftop solar, they say, could play a critical role in California’s energy future, but a major shift from centralized power plants to distributed generation would require a fundamental reworking of the electricity grid. Building many rooftop solar installations is also more expensive than building a single large-scale solar project that generates the same amount of energy.
Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission, played a key role in crafting the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. In an interview with The Desert Sun last month, Douglas said it’s difficult to predict how different technologies will develop, and that regulators must plan for every possible pathway toward reducing carbon emissions – including large-scale renewable energy in the desert.
That kind of thorough planning is especially important, Douglas said, considering California’s ambitious long-term climate goals. The state has a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
“We don’t have the luxury of waiting for the perfect technology that’s going to solve all of our problems to appear,” Douglas said. “We’ve got to take steps now with the technology that we’ve got.”
Jim Kenna, director of the Bureau of Land Management’s California office, was also involved in drafting the renewable energy plan. Kenna told The Desert Sun that regulators would be foolish to bank too heavily on one technology.
“People say, ‘Eventually the tooth fairy will happen, and (renewable energy) will all happen on rooftops, and storage technologies will be wonderful,’” he said. “And if that happens, that’s great. But we can’t create a system on that hope, because literally millions of people are relying on us having a thoughtful system-level plan going forward.”
Similarly, major environmental groups – including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council – have largely supported the renewable energy plan. While they’ve criticized some elements of the 8,000-page document and opposed large-scale projects proposed for especially sensitive areas, they’ve generally agreed that rooftop solar alone is not enough to limit climate change.
But frustration over renewable energy in the desert runs deeper than technical questions over rooftop solar’s scalability. Many of the petition’s signatories argue the desert should be off limits to all large-scale renewable energy projects – regardless, it seems, of what that means for California’s climate goals.
“This is pristine desert and wildlife habitat that should not be sacrificed to what we all know is not sustainable energy but rather a taxpayer-subsidized farce. Please don’t allow this to happen,” one signature reads. “I have lived here for over 50 years and if I want solor (sic) here, I will put it on my roof. Thank you for considering those of us who live here and want to keep our desert just the way it is.”
One signatory wrote that the renewable energy plan “sanctioned the wholesale destruction of California’s beautiful deserts.” Another called industrial wind “a fraud,” and yet another implored regulators, “PLEASE DON’T DISTROY (sic) MY HOME.”
The public comment period for the draft renewable energy plan – which was released in September – runs through Feb. 23. But while the petition and other comments could prompt regulators to rethink their assumptions about rooftop solar, they’ve spent nearly six years working on the plan, and they’re unlikely to abandon its fundamental premise.
Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association, said innovations in smart grid technology could allow California to generate a majority of its electricity from distributed resources by 2030. She also noted that rooftop solar creates many more jobs per unit of energy generation than large-scale renewable energy development.
“It is a fair critique that California policymakers need to prioritize distributed generation more than they currently do,” she said.
But even Del Chiaro – whose organization largely represents companies involved in the rooftop solar industry – said distributed generation alone won’t reduce emissions fast enough to sufficiently combat climate change.
“California may not want every single power plant that is proposed and put on the table, but if California’s going to achieve its climate goals, it’s going to need large-scale renewables as well as distributed generation, at least in the near term,” she said.
Exactly how many large-scale renewable energy projects the state might need is an open question. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan creates space for 20,000 megawatts in the desert, but Kenna noted that if the technological landscape changes, many of those megawatts might never be developed.
“The (plan) didn’t authorize 20,000 megawatts. It doesn’t authorize projects,” he said. “It sets up a plan so that the actions that we take now and in the foreseeable future are oriented toward reducing those greenhouse gases.”
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