Environmentalists don’t always see eye to eye with Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, California’s two largest utilities. But some of the state’s most influential environmental groups have joined forces with the utilities to support a massive conservation and clean energy plan, in the face of opposition from the solar and wind industries.
Officials are close to finalizing the far-reaching plan, which would divvy up 10 million acres of federal land in the California desert between conservation, energy development and recreation, including off-roading. The goal is to protect threatened species like bighorn sheep and desert tortoises, while identifying areas where solar and wind farms can be built safely and approved quickly. The biggest development zone is proposed for eastern Riverside County, where several solar farms already rank among the largest in the world.
Energy-industry critics say the plan would leave far too little space for solar and wind projects, while doing nothing to speed up development. But many conservationists disagree, and so do the utilities.
In a joint letter earlier this month, Edison, PG&E and seven environmental groups called for the plan’s swift approval. It’s an unusual alliance: Several of the environmental groups have sparred with Edison and PG&E in recent years, on issues ranging from rooftop solar compensation to who should pay for the decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear power plant.
But they’ve decided their interests align on the desert plan. In their July letter to Neil Kornze, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management, they praised the plan’s “landscape approach to balancing conservation and clean energy,” saying it will “provide consistency and certainty” for conservationists working to protect ecosystems and energy developers looking to build power plants.
Certainty is a big deal for the utilities, which are required by state law to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2030. Many proposed solar and wind farms have been bogged down by lengthy permitting fights between conservationists and energy companies, making it more difficult for utilities to plan their renewable energy purchasing.
The joint letter was also signed by Audubon California, the California Native Plant Society, Defenders of Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society. Those groups support solar and wind development to displace fossil fuels, since climate change poses an unprecedented threat to the ecosystems they’re trying to protect.
“We think this plan is going to deliver on its promise,” said Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society. “Will it be perfect? No, but we think it’s going to deliver.”
Spokespeople for Edison and PG&E declined to make utility officials available for on-the-record interviews. Edison’s president, Ron Nichols, said in an emailed statement that the utility is “proud to have had the opportunity to actively participate in the effort.” Diane Ross-Leech, PG&E’s director of environmental policy, also provided an emailed statement, saying the Northern California utility is “committed to protecting California’s unique ecosystems and landscapes, and continuing to advance low-carbon energy solutions to combat climate change.”
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan would set aside 5.3 million acres for conservation and 3.8 million acres for recreation, compared to just 388,000 acres for renewable energy projects. Solar developers say that’s not nearly enough land to build the projects California will need to meet its 50 percent clean energy mandate, let alone to push for 100 percent clean energy over time. While no one expects all 388,000 acres to be developed, companies say they need more flexibility as the search for the best places to build solar farms.
And solar developers aren’t even sure they’ll be able to build in the designated energy zones. They’ve argued that a series of new conservation rules, largely intended to protect birds, are onerous and would make projects far more expensive. It’s also possible some of the energy zones contain Native American artifacts or unforeseen wildlife conflicts, which could preclude development.
“The premise of the plan was that this was going to find a way to provide both conservation lands and areas for renewable energy development to meet our climate goals. Instead, it’s going to close out most of the desert to solar development,” said Danielle Mills, senior policy advisor for the Large-scale Solar Association, a California trade group. Her organization, along with the national Solar Energy Industries Association, sent a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell earlier this year, urging her not to approve the plan without major changes.
Those criticisms have frustrated conservationists, some of whom believe solar companies are overreacting, or else posturing for a better deal. They think it’s silly to suggest the plan could prevent California from meeting its climate goals, noting that 388,000 acres is more than 600 square miles. They point out that plenty of land is available in other parts of the state, too, and that the rapid growth of rooftop solar and energy-efficiency programs could somewhat limit the need for large-scale solar plants.
Environmental groups also don’t think the plan’s conservation rules would hamstring development. Culver, from the Wilderness Society, said her group is “having a hard time understanding some of these issues, because we can’t find these major flaws in the plan they’re identifying.”
“We’re having a hard time seeing this doomsday-for-renewable-energy scenario,” she said.
In some areas, solar developers and conservationists can’t even agree on what the plan says.
A case in point: The plan would require “collector lines” from solar farms to electrical substations to be buried underground, “where feasible.” Mills said it’s not clear whether that means “technically feasible” or “economically feasible,” and she’s worried the vague language would make burying collector lines a de facto requirement. That’s just one in a long list of conservation rules the solar industry sees as costly and unnecessary.
“The only certainty that those provide is that projects are not going to be developable in those areas, because there are so many additional hoops that developers will have to jump through,” Mills said.
Conservation groups think otherwise. Culver said language like “where feasible” and “to the extent practicable” attached to many of the conservation rules would give industry and regulators room to maneuver. She also pointed to several pages in the plan outlining incentives to build in development areas, including commitments from the Bureau of Land Management to speed up permitting.
At the same time, many of those incentives are vague, and some of them would need to be implemented in a separate legal process. One “streamlining” action, for instance, promises federal officials will “undertake interagency coordination to expedite service and provide priority processing to projects in (development areas).” But the plan doesn’t say how much that will speed up permitting, if at all. And according to a footnote, that commitment would “be implemented through BLM Policy or Regulation” and is “not part of the (desert plan).”
Wind developers are even more pessimistic than their counterparts in the solar industry. The say the plan would close California’s best remaining wind hotspots to development.
“We’re kind of throwing in the towel at this point. We would have to mount to a legal challenge, and we don’t really have the resources for that,” Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, said last month. “The developers have largely left California.”
Federal officials say they had to close many areas to wind development because of potential harm to golden eagles, and requirements from the Department of Defense to keep certain areas clear for military aircraft training. Conservation groups, meanwhile, say there are still plenty of opportunities for wind developers to replace older, less efficient turbines with newer, more powerful ones.
“They’re not taking into consideration all the repower opportunities within the Tehachapis, and the Altamont Pass and the San Gorgonio Pass,” Kim Delfino, director of California programs for Defenders of Wildlife, said last month.
Environmental groups have their own problems with the plan. They’re not happy that 40,000 acres would be designated as “variance” lands, which could be opened to development with further study. They’re even more frustrated by the 536,000 acres that have been designated for neither conservation nor development, leaving open the question of what will happen to those lands.
“To have half a million acres left out there in neither the development nor conservation designation…really undermines that whole idea of guided development and low-conflict zoning and strategic conservation that the whole plan is built upon,” said Helen O’Shea, director of the Western Renewable Energy Project at the Natural Resource Defense Council, in an interview last month.
Karen Douglas, a member of the California Energy Commission who has worked on the plan for years, said solar and wind developers would be able to propose projects on unallocated lands. They just wouldn’t get the purported streamlining benefits of building in development zones, she said.
“The development focus areas are where we would like to encourage the development to occur,” she said.
The Bureau of Land Management has said it hopes to finalize the plan later this summer or in the fall, ending an eight-year process. The fighting might continue, though: Jerry Perez, director of the bureau’s California office, told The Desert Sun earlier this year that he thinks lawsuits are likely.
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