The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan isn’t supposed to impact the Coachella Valley. But local officials are worried the wide-ranging document could inadvertently limit wind development in Palm Springs and the San Gorgonio Pass.
State and federal officials have spent six years working on the 10,000-page draft plan that would lay the ground rules for the next quarter-century of solar, wind and geothermal development across 22.5 million acres of California desert. The plan would designate several million acres as renewable energy zones, while setting aside millions more acres for conservation and recreation.
The conservation areas are what concern local leaders and wind energy companies. While the plan’s boundaries don’t extend into the Coachella Valley, officials believe that several conservation areas proposed for San Bernardino County, including some along the Riverside County border near Highway 62, could create insurmountable permitting requirements for nearby wind development in Palm Springs and the San Gorgonio Pass.
Marcus Fuller, Palm Springs’ city engineer and an assistant city manager, said the plan’s potential impacts “caught us by surprise.” After being alerted to the issue by the Desert Wind Energy Association – a consortium of wind energy companies – Fuller wrote a letter to the agencies responsible for the plan, objecting to “any provisions included in the (plan) that would represent restrictions on existing or new wind energy projects” in Palm Springs.
“I don’t think anybody was playing close attention to it, because in theory it didn’t affect or have any impact on what we do here in the Coachella Valley,” Fuller said in an interview.
The problem, the Desert Wind Energy Association wrote in its comment letter, is that conservation areas outside the valley could have “edge effects” on nearby areas within the valley. That could result in protections for some species, like golden eagles, extending outside of designated conservation areas and into the valley, the group argued.
Federal officials, though, have pushed back against claims the plan would affect the valley. Eric Davis, assistant regional director for migratory birds at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sacramento office, said protections for golden eagles wouldn’t extend outside the plan area.
“For eagles, I think the answer is no, there wouldn’t be an impact,” Davis said. “I don’t foresee that.”
But Fred Noble, a longtime renewable energy developer and CEO of Palm Springs-based Wintec Energy, believes the plan in its current form would require wind companies to conduct unnecessary studies and comply with onerous restrictions when applying for permits to build in the San Gorgonio Pass. The result, he predicted, would be a “complete moratorium” on wind development in the area.
New permitting requirements would be particularly troubling, Noble said, because the Coachella Valley already has its own plan to protect birds and other wildlife. Officials spent 10 years working on the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan that covers more than one million acres from Cabazon to the Salton Sea.
Noble called the new plan “a massive overreach.”
“What you can’t have is one bureaucracy claiming jurisdiction outside of its border to enforce things,” he said. “Where does it stop?”
Most of the San Gorgonio Pass’ wind resources have been fully tapped for decades, but hundreds of old turbines are due to be replaced by newer, more efficient models. Experts say that kind of “repowering” could reduce the number of turbines in the Coachella Valley while increasing the area’s overall energy output.
There are about 3,200 wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass, but that could be reduced to 800 turbines producing twice as much energy overall, Chris Lucker, director of the Desert Wind Energy Association, said last year.
“To have this plan, which supports energy development projects throughout Southern California, somehow restrict our continued ability to do those projects – I don’t understand the nexus or connection there,” Fuller said.
The impact of wind farms on golden eagles has long been a source of controversy.
Critics believe wind turbines pose a serious threat to birds, but developers say there’s little evidence that Coachella Valley wind turbines have killed any golden eagles. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said last year that only two golden eagles had been found dead in the San Gorgonio Pass area since 1997, and that the causes of death were unclear.
Regardless of who’s right, Riverside County officials want clarity on what limits, if any, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan would place on local wind development. Juan Perez, director of Riverside County’s transportation and land management agency, said it was “not clear to us in the document if the ‘edge effects’ discussion could be interpreted as” affecting the Coachella Valley.
The plan’s public comment period ended last month, and regulators are currently reviewing a wide range of criticisms from renewable energy companies, environmental groups and local activists, among others. It’s too early to say how the agencies responsible for the plan will respond to the issues raised by the Desert Wind Energy Association and Palm Springs, said Jennifer Nelson, an advisor to Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission.
If state and federal officials do make changes to golden eagle-related permitting requirements, they would likely do so as part of the second phase of the plan, Nelson said. Officials responded to other criticisms of the plan earlier this month by announcing they would implement it in two pieces, the first dealing with public lands and the second dealing with private lands and project permitting.
“Maybe we’re off base,” Fuller said. “Maybe the wind energy partnership is misinterpreting the plan or the regulation. I don’t know. But we want to find out.”
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