More than 12,000 people submitted comments on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan before this week’s deadline, many of them urging policymakers to protect specific parts of the desert from development.
Unprecedented in scope and scale, the 10,000-page draft plan has far-reaching implications for the future of California’s deserts. The plan covers 22.5 million acres across seven counties, encouraging solar, wind and geothermal development in some areas and setting aside other areas for conservation or recreation.
Major environmental groups have largely supported the idea of balancing large-scale renewable energy development and conservation, but local activists have called 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 line of thinking dominates many of the comments submitted before Monday’s deadline. One commenter, El Cajon resident Jennifer Bergmann, described her “absolute opposition” to large-scale renewable energy projects, writing that they ruin scenic landscapes, threaten wildlife and consume too much water.
“I urge you to STOP building more large-scale green plants in the RURAL and DESERT AREAS!!” Bergmann wrote.
Another commenter, Fawnskin resident Sarah Curtis, said more funding should go toward reducing the up-front costs of installing rooftop solar panels. She also called for strong enforcement of environmental restrictions on large-scale renewable energy projects.
“The desert is fragile and once disrupted will take eons to heal,” she wrote.
The policymakers who wrote the plan are far less comfortable banking on rooftop solar as an all-encompassing climate change solution.
Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission, said last year that it’s difficult to predict how different technologies will develop, and that regulators must plan for every pathway toward reducing carbon emissions. That kind of planning is especially important, she 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.”
Still, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also urged a more thorough evaluation of rooftop solar in its comments on the plan. The agencies that wrote the plan assumed that California would need up to 20,000 megawatts of large-scale renewable energy in the desert to meet its long-term climate goals, but the EPA called for them to reconsider that assumption.
“Significant market and policy developments affecting the renewable energy industry – such as the sharp decline in the cost of rooftop solar-powered electricity and rapid deployment of energy storage – warrant a re-evaluation of the renewable energy planning effort,” the EPA wrote.
Basin and Range Watch, a grassroots environmental group, criticized regulators for not evaluating a “distributed generation alternative” that would have prioritized rooftop solar. Regulators explained that they rejected this alternative because it “would not advance the federal orders and mandates that compel the (Bureau of Land Management) to evaluate renewable energy projects on federally administered lands.”
Basin and Range Watch called that logic “either circular or nonsensical.” Kevin Emmerich, one of the group’s leaders, said it doesn’t make sense for the federal government to mandate renewable energy in the open desert when there’s so much space available on rooftops and in parking lots.
“Certainly it’s going to take a little bit more planning and a little bit more time to implement something that involves so many people’s rooftops and private properties, but if we do that, we’ve created a long-term, job-sustaining industry,” Emmerich said.
Most of the 12,000-plus public comment letters still haven’t been posted on the renewable energy plan’s website. More than 11,000 of those comments were submitted between Thursday and Tuesday, said Lori Sinsley, a spokeswoman for the California Energy Commission.
Officials aren’t yet sure when the rest of the comments will be posted, or whether late comments will be accepted, Sinsley added.
Of the close to 900 comments posted by Tuesday afternoon, 760 were the same form letter, urging regulators to reclassify certain parts of the desert as conservation zones, rather than possible renewable energy zones. Those areas include the Silurian Valley, public lands near the Big Maria Mountains Wilderness Area, the Iron Mountains and parts of the Mule Mountains.
“I value the California desert for its rich natural heritage, wilderness landscapes, and outstanding opportunities for recreation, while also recognizing the importance of increasing the proportion of our energy use from renewable sources,” the letter reads.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,400 people had signed a petition by Tuesday afternoon urging regulators to fundamentally rethink the plan. San Diego resident David Garmon, president of the Tubb Canyon Desert Conservancy, said he planned to deliver the petition – titled “We don’t have to sacrifice California’s deserts for renewable energy!” – to officials in Sacramento on Thursday.
“I think the people who have been writing the plan have been giving their best shot at developing a renewable energy future for California,” Garmon said. “I think the people who are commenting on the plan understand that it’s imperative that we develop renewable energy. I think it’s just a question of how we do it in a way that’s cost-effective, that’s economically feasible, and has the least environmental impacts possible.”
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