Calif. desert plan draws criticism from wind industry, parks group

Source: Scott Streater, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2014

The draft of a sweeping new plan to guide renewable energy development in the Southern California desert has met with mostly positive reviews from conservation groups that have long argued that properly siting commercial-scale projects should be a priority.

But while it will take weeks for most to thoroughly review the multivolume, 8,000-page draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) covering 22.5 million acres of public and private lands in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, some groups have already begun to question components of the proposed plan.Among the concerns are that the plan does not appear to address three proposed renewable energy projects within the DRECP planning area that would be sited near national park units and that have drawn criticism from the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. EPA and others.And representatives of the California Wind Energy Association issued a strongly worded statement condemning the draft DRECP and its approach to wind power development in the desert.The draft plan, among other things, calls for establishing 2 million acres of “development focus areas” within the planning area that are deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewables development or transmission line projects. Proposed projects in these designated areas would still undergo environmental review, but the process would be streamlined because the areas have already been surveyed and studied, and mitigation requirements already established as part of the conservation plan (E&ENews PM, Sept. 23).

Among the five alternatives analyzed in the draft DRECP, as well as a sixth “no action” alternative, the so-called preferred alternative of the Bureau of Land Management and the state of California would restrict access to some of the state’s valuable wind resources.

Instead, much of the 2 million acres of development focus areas where project permitting would be streamlined are in areas that lack commercially viable wind resources, according to the wind energy association.

“After years of trying to constructively engage in this process, we did not expect this plan to provide permitting efficiencies for wind energy,” Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, said in a statement. “But it now appears that our worst fears are being realized: all five DRECP Plan Alternatives could end most wind energy development in California.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled the draft plan yesterday against the backdrop of large wind turbines at the AES Wind Energy Generation Facility in Palm Springs, Calif.

“We are taking state and federal officials at their word that, with the release of this draft, much-needed dialogue can now occur and significant change is still possible before the plan becomes final,” Rader added. “While we expect to remain constructively engaged in this process, a plan that works for wind energy will unfortunately require the agencies to go back to the drawing board and recirculate a new plan.”

David Lamfrom, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association’s California desert program in Barstow, Calif., said he is concerned that the draft plan does not appear to address three proposed renewable energy projects that he said could undermine the entire DRECP process.

Among them is the 358-megawatt Soda Mountain Solar Project in San Bernardino County, which is proposed to sit less than a mile from the Mojave National Preserve — one of the largest national park units in the lower 48 states at 1.6 million acres.

Stephanie Dubois, the preserve’s superintendent, sent a strongly worded letter last spring to BLM warning that if the project proposed by a subsidiary of San Francisco-based Bechtel Development Co. is built, it will have potentially devastating impacts “to the hydrology, threatened and endangered species, scenic landscapes and wilderness character” in the preserve (Greenwire, March 13).

The Park Service has also expressed concerns about Eagle Crest Energy Co.’s Eagle Mountain pumped storage hydroelectric project on 2,700 acres in Riverside County near Joshua Tree National Park, and Iberdrola Renewables’ 200 MW Silurian Valley solar project on more than 7,000 acres of BLM lands in San Bernardino County near Death Valley National Park.

“To me these are the terrible three projects that, if approved, would do significant harm to park resources,” Lamfrom said.

So much so, he added, that it could undermine much of the value of the DRECP process.

“The DRECP concept is good, and there’s a need for planning. Moving projects out of the really pristine areas of the Mojave is worth doing,” he said. “But it needs to be done properly, and the only way to do that is to not approve these projects.”

The draft DRECP is expected to be formally published in Friday’s Federal Register, kicking off a 106-day public comment period running through Jan. 9, 2015.

A final plan is not expected to be approved until 2016, BLM officials say.

Positive views

Despite these concerns, most conservation and renewable energy groups reacted favorably to the draft DRECP, which BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife developed over a five-year period.

Among other things, the draft plan proposes adopting an overarching conservation strategy that calls for avoiding identified environmentally sensitive areas and outlines mitigation requirements for unavoidable impacts. BLM also proposes as part of the plan to amend three land-use plans in the California desert region covering nearly 10 million acres to add 3.9 million acres to the existing National Landscape Conservation Lands system and designate 1.9 million acres as “areas of critical environmental concern” — all in an effort to protect 37 species that are “covered” under the DRECP, including the Mojave fringe-toed lizard, California condor, desert bighorn sheep and burrowing owl.

Barbara Boyle, the Sierra Club’s senior campaign representative, struck a positive note about the draft plan and the example it sets for renewables development across the country.

“We are still analyzing the plan, and there will no doubt continue to be debate about where to site clean energy projects, and how to best conserve areas important for wildlife, wilderness, and recreation,” Boyle said in a statement. “But we are hopeful that the DRECP will become a model for sustainable, well-sited development as our state continues its transition to clean energy.”

Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife in Sacramento, was also positive about the draft plan but also noted that possible changes to the draft need to be discussed.

Defenders of Wildlife representatives had hoped that more of an emphasis would be placed on directing renewable energy development on already disturbed lands.

Delfino said the release of the draft document is “the first step toward further engaging counties, desert communities, elected officials, renewable energy companies, conservation organizations, recreational users and other stakeholders to weigh in on what a final DRECP should look like.”

She added, “Undoubtedly the desert has a role to play in our clean energy future, but this does not mean putting our land, wildlife and natural heritage at risk. A DRECP done right will be a win-win — balancing the needs of desert conservation with those of responsible renewable energy development.”