In a landmark announcement this week, President Barack Obama joined with the leaders of Canada and Mexico to pledge that North America will get half of its electricity from climate-friendly energy sources by 2025, in an effort to slow global warming. But in California, renewable energy developers are wondering whether Obama’s actions will live up to his words.
Over the last few months, solar and wind industry groups have been fighting federal regulations they say would make it difficult if not impossible to build clean energy projects on public lands in the California desert, home to some of the state’s strongest sunlight and most powerful wind. If the new regulations are finalized as planned later this year, developers say, the United States could lose a major source of relatively cheap clean energy, and California could be forced to meet its own climate goals by buying more solar and wind power from out of state.
Federal officials and environmental groups have rejected most of those criticisms as baseless. They say the new regulations – which are meant to protect the desert’s fragile ecosystems and beloved open spaces from excessive development – will make it easier, not harder, to build energy projects in designated areas. Some environmentalists are pushing for even stronger conservation measures.
“We want to meet our incredibly aggressive (climate and clean energy) goals. This is not trying to make it harder for industry,” said Kim Delfino, director of California programs for Defenders of Wildlife.
Those assurances are little comfort to solar and wind developers, who say the new regulations – which would govern energy development on 10 million acres of public lands in the California desert – could be disastrous.
Solar industry leaders detailed their concerns in a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a copy of which was obtained by The Desert Sun, earlier this year. In the letter, they argued that a plan to close millions of acres of open desert to development – along with onerous new conservation rules designed to protect birds – would make it harder for them to compete with fossil fuels.
The new rules and land-use policies would “increase the costs of solar energy development across the board,” wrote Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, a state trade group, and Rhone Resch, then-president of the national Solar Energy Industries Association.
“The sensationalized fears that solar would run roughshod over undisturbed public lands have not materialized. Yet the momentum to constrain development opportunities has continued unabated,” they wrote.
Wind industry leaders paint an even bleaker outlook. The proposed regulations, they say, would close California’s best remaining wind hotspots to development, essentially killing the state’s wind industry.
“We’re kind of throwing in the towel at this point,” said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association.
Conservation versus clean energy
The source of those frustrations is the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a federal-state effort to promote clean energy development while protecting sensitive species and ecosystems. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger first called for the plan in 2008, in hopes of stemming a budding conflict between renewable energy developers and conservationists. Many conservation groups saw the rush to build solar and wind projects in the desert as potentially dangerous to threatened animals like desert tortoises and bighorn sheep, and to prized landscapes like Joshua Tree National Park.
Officials released the desert plan last November. The Bureau of Land Management is now reviewing “protests” from energy developers, conservationists and other groups and will publish a finalized version of the plan – which will take effect immediately – later this summer or in the fall, said Tom Pogacnik, deputy directory of the federal agency’s California office. At that point, groups that still aren’t satisfied with the plan could sue the agency. Jerry Perez, director of the bureau’s California office, told The Desert Sun earlier this year that he thinks lawsuits are likely.
Conservationists have celebrated the proposed plan, which would set aside 3.9 million acres of federal land for permanent conservation and provide a lesser level of protection for another 1.4 million acres. While they’re asking for some changes – including more clarity on 536,000 acres that have been designated for neither conservation nor development – they’re mostly satisfied.
“Overall, we’re very supportive of this approach and believe that the plan has struck the right balance – which is really hard to do – between development and conservation,” said Helen O’Shea, director of the Western Renewable Energy Project at the Natural Resource Defense Council.
Solar developers, though, say the balance is all wrong.
Their frustrations start with the amount of land where energy development would be encouraged: Just 400,000 of the more than 10 million acres of public lands covered by the plan. While no one expects all 400,000 acres to be developed, solar industry leaders say companies need more flexibility as they search for the best places to build projects. And developers aren’t convinced that all the conservation areas are warranted.
“When it comes to the size of designated development areas, the (Interior) Department should be asking not only whether it has set aside enough land for development, but also whether, based on scientific evidence, it is necessary to prohibit development in certain areas for conservation reasons,” Eddy and Resch wrote in their letter to Interior Secretary Jewell.
Making matters worse, solar developers say, is uncertainty over whether they’ll actually be able to build on the 400,000 acres marked for development. Government officials haven’t thoroughly analyzed whether development zones contain Native American artifacts, or whether new power lines linking those areas to cities and towns would cause serious environmental damage. Both of those factors could end up preventing development in many of the designated areas, critics say.
Even more frustrating to the solar industry is a series of new conservation rules, largely intended to protect birds. Industry officials say many of those rules – including requirements that electrical lines be buried underground, and that evaporation ponds be made in inaccessible to wildlife – aren’t supported by sound science linking solar farms to bird deaths, and would make development far more expensive.
“If (the Bureau of Land Management) intends to leave less than 5% of the public lands in the California Desert open to the possibility of development, the land being offered must actually be easier and more economical to develop – which was a stated promise of the effort at the outset,” Eddy and Resch wrote in their letter.
‘We just don’t see eye to eye’
Officials at the Bureau of Land Management say the proposed conservation rules would actually make project permitting faster and easier. While the new requirements for solar developers “have higher levels of expectation” than the old rules, Pogacnik said, “they still add a level of certainty, so that should shorten the timelines.”
“We could provide more flexibility, but then there’s less certainty,” he said.
Pogacnik acknowledged that specific sites will still need to be investigated for potential conflicts as projects are proposed. But while it would have been impossible to exhaustively survey all 10 million acres for wildlife and Native American artifacts in advance, officials did enough “pre-screening” to choose development zones with “relatively low resource conflicts,” Pogacnik said.
“We were able to identify areas where there were fewer biological surveys required, so that will save time and money. And it will also reduce mitigation requirements,” he said.
Officials also insist that more than enough acres are available for development, based on the California Energy Commission’s projections of how much clean energy the state will need to meet its long-term climate goals. State leaders have set a goal of reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.
Conservation groups are similarly confident the plan leaves enough room for renewable energy projects. Those groups emphasize that they strongly support solar and wind development to displace fossil fuels, since climate change poses an unprecedented threat to the species, ecosystems and landscapes they’re trying to protect.
“Numerous calculations have been run by the (environmental) community, including folks that have very strong energy departments. And the energy commission indicates there is more than enough land for likely renewables targets,” said O’Shea, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, when asked about the solar industry’s concerns. “I think we just don’t see eye to eye on that piece of it.”
Some conservation groups say the desert plan opens too much land to development in its current form. In their joint protest, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club argued that state and federal agencies failed to account for existing renewable energy projects, and for the rapid growth of rooftop solar and energy efficiency. If officials would factor those numbers into their calculations, the groups argued, they’d find that fewer large-scale energy projects are needed in the desert than they previously thought – and therefore that less land is needed for development.
There’s also plenty of land outside the desert where California could build clean energy projects, conservationists say. Researchers at UC Berkeley and the nonprofit Conservation Biology Institute released a report last month identifying 470,000 acres of land in the San Joaquin Valley suitable for solar farms, including former agricultural lands that are no longer productive. County governments in the desert are also identifying areas where renewable energy projects can be built on private lands, although critics say some of those counties have adopted overly restrictive land-use plans.
“When you add that stuff up, you’re talking probably more than 1 million acres of land that have been identified for renewable energy development, and that’s not even counting projects that have already gone online or are being development,” said Delfino, from Defenders of Wildlife. “It is not rational to say that somehow the (plan) is not providing enough land for the solar energy industry.”
Solar industry leaders think otherwise, saying California will need far more clean energy than it’s currently planning for. Eddy pointed to this week’s joint pledge between the United States, Canada and Mexico, and to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pledge to increase renewable energy production on public lands and waters tenfold within 10 years, if she’s elected. Then there’s the Paris climate deal struck by 195 nations last year, which will require far steeper cuts to greenhouse gas emissions than anything the United States has achieved thus far.
But the conservation requirements in the Obama administration’s California desert plan would make development “more constrained, more expensive and more difficult to build than it has ever been – including in the very areas they’ve set aside to promote development,” Eddy said in an email.
“Decision makers should plan for uncharted long-term renewable energy needs and ensure the availability of the necessary lands,” she said. “To fail in this effort is to undermine our national climate goals.”
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