Here in the desert, public lands are only part of the picture: As part of the Obama administration's California desert plan, several county governments have developed their own land-use plans. State and federal officials have long expected most solar and wind projects in the desert to be built on private lands administered by the counties. But so far, those county plans haven't led to much clean energy development, either. Some county governments have placed strict restrictions on solar and wind — often driven by opposition from rural communities, where many residents see energy projects as unwanted intruders that disturb pristine landscapes and disrupt gorgeous views.
The good times keep rolling for solar and wind energy.
The United States added more than 11 gigawatts of solar power last year, according to a new report from the federal Energy Information Administration – meaning the country now has nearly 50 percent more solar power than it did a year earlier. The wind industry, meanwhile, just had its best first quarter since 2009, installing 908 turbines with more than 2 gigawatts of capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
But on public lands the California desert – where open space is abundant, and the sun and wind are strong – new development has slowed to a crawl.
Last year, the Obama administration finalized a sweeping land-use plan covering 11 million acres of federal lands in the California desert. The document set aside 6.5 million acres for conservation and 3.6 million acres for recreation, while designating 388,000 acres for clean energy development, including 148,000 in eastern Riverside County.
Conservationists hailed the plan as a major victory for desert ecosystems, saying it would help safeguard at-risk species like the desert tortoise and golden eagle from unchecked development. But the solar and wind industries were frustrated, saying it created too many regulatory roadblocks for developers and would stifle the growth of clean energy at a critical moment in the fight against climate change.
So far, those critics say, their fears seem to be coming true.
In the eight months since the desert plan was finalized, just one solar company has filed paperwork expressing interest in building in a development zone, said Greg Miller, from the federal Bureau of Land Management’s California Desert District. No wind companies have expressed interest. And the bureau can’t start processing applications yet because it’s still working to implement another solar and wind regulation issued late last year by the Obama administration, the competitive leasing rule, Miller said.
That doesn’t mean there’s no development on public lands in the desert: Several big solar farms proposed over the last few years are still moving forward, some of them in areas that have now been marked as federal development zones. In the eastern Riverside County development zone, those projects include SunPower’s 400-megawatt Arica solar farm, which was proposed last summer, and EDF’s 150-megawatt Desert Harvest project, which has been around since 2011 and is finally nearing construction.
But for Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, the total absence of new wind projects is a sign she was right about the plan’s flaws. Rader has been one of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan’s fiercest critics, saying it closes most of the state’s best remaining wind hot spots to development.
“They did not seek to preserve any of the high-quality wind resources,” Rader said. “You have to have a high-quality wind resource to be competitive in the renewable energy market, particularly to compete against solar, whose costs are declining rapidly.”
State officials marked many of the desert’s high-quality wind areas as off limits to prevent bird deaths and to avoid conflicts with military testing and training activities.
“We let them know at every opportunity that this was not going to work for wind. And here we are,” Rader said.
Solar firms aren’t happy, either. They’ve said the plan closes far too much land to development, and makes it difficult to build in designated areas by forcing companies to comply with onerous conservation rules. The industry’s concerns have been compounded by the competitive leasing rule, which requires the federal government to handle solar and wind development by auctioning leasing rights to the highest bidders. The desert plan wasn’t designed with competitive leasing in mind, and the Bureau of Land Management is still trying to figure out how the two regulations work together.
As much renewable energy as California has already built over the last decade, it’s going to need a lot more – and maybe a lot sooner than expected.
Kevin de León, the powerful leader of the state Senate, introduced a bill last week that would require California to get 100 percent of its electricity from climate-friendly sources by 2045. The bill, SB 100, would also speed up the state’s current 50 percent renewable energy mandate, moving the target year from 2030 to 2026. Under de León’s plan, the Golden State would need to need to hit 60 percent renewable energy by 2030.
Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, a Sacramento-based trade group, said the 100 percent clean energy bill highlights the need for local governments to align their land-use plans with California’s efforts to fight climate change. Between the federal government’s desert plan and several county-level plans that have put strict restrictions on solar and wind, Eddy isn’t sure California has made enough land available to replace all fossil fuels with climate-friendly energy.
“California has plenty of land,” Eddy said. “The question is, will the regulators be visionaries when it comes to decarbonizing the grid, and allow these solar and wind projects to be sited in a lot of areas where they’re saying no?”
Environmental groups aren’t especially worried.
Helen O’Shea, director of Western Renewable Energy Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, helped craft the California desert plan – and she thinks it’s doing its job, balancing ecosystem protection and clean energy development. She thinks the relative lack of big new solar projects in the desert has less to do with the federal regulations, and more to do with market and policy factors – such as the drying up of incentives from President Barack Obama’s 2009 stimulus package, and the fact that California utilities are already on track to meet their 2020 renewable energy targets.
“The pace of solar applications over the last five years, compared to the five years prior to that, has really slowed down,” O’Shea said.
O’Shea expects to see a lot more development in the San Joaquin Valley, where researchers have identified 470,000 acres of land that are suitable for solar farms, including former agricultural lands that are no longer productive. Additional land should open up as water shortages lead to more farmland being retired, O’Shea said.
“I don’t think we appreciated how much potential there was for development in the (San Joaquin) Valley when we started talking about the (desert plan) 10 years ago,” she said. “There’s this statewide picture – it’s not just about the desert.”
And here in the desert, public lands are only part of the picture: As part of the Obama administration’s California desert plan, several county governments have developed their own land-use plans. State and federal officials have long expected most solar and wind projects in the desert to be built on private lands administered by the counties.
But so far, those county plans haven’t led to much clean energy development, either. Some county governments have placed strict restrictions on solar and wind – often driven by opposition from rural communities, where many residents see energy projects as unwanted intruders that disturb pristine landscapes and disrupt gorgeous views.
Los Angeles County approved a renewable energy ordinance in December, which bans large-scale wind turbines in unincorporated areas and favors rooftop solar over big solar farms. Last month, San Bernardino County released a final draft of its renewable energy plan, which prohibits projects “that would create adverse impacts on the quality of life or economic development opportunities in existing unincorporated communities.”
Kern County – which produces more renewable energy than any other county in California, thanks to thousands of wind turbines in the Tehachapi Pass – has received several applications for large-scale solar farms over the last few years. But Riverside County has received just one solar project application since it adopted a Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment in March 2016. Inyo County has received no applications, in the two years since it adopted a plan amendment that bans large-scale wind turbines and encourages solar development on just 5,400 acres of private land.
Whatever happens in those counties, California will need more than big solar and wind farms to get to 100 percent clean energy. Experts say energy conservation, efficiency and rooftop solar can play a much greater role, and utilities are increasingly investing in batteries to store solar and wind energy for times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Another option is to tap the powerful geothermal resource at the Salton Sea, which has high up-front costs but provides clean electricity around the clock.
California could also import more renewable energy from other western states by linking its electric grid with the six-state grid controlled by Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp utility, as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed. That plan appears to have stalled amid opposition from de León and other top lawmakers, who worry it would inadvertently lead to California importing coal power from Utah and Wyoming. But Brown could still try to revive it.
De León’s legislation may also broaden the definition of clean energy.
The current draft of the bill maintains the strict requirement for “renewable” energy – generally meaning solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and small hydropower plants – for the 50 percent and 60 percent targets. But it broadens the 100 percent target to include all zero-carbon resources, including nuclear and large hydro. California’s only operating nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County, is currently slated to close in 2025. The state got 5 percent of its electricity from large hydropower plants last year.
For Eddy, who runs the California solar trade group, it’s critical not to lose sight of the larger goal of clean energy policy: fighting climate change. It’s a problem that demands global solutions – and with President Donald Trump quickly removing the United States from international climate efforts, California is more important than ever, Eddy said.
“California, in spite of what Trump is doing – it’s the sixth-biggest economy in the world, and we can step up and really help to show the way and send a signal to other countries that the United States is not lost when it comes to climate policy,” she said.
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