The government just decided the future of California’s desert, and solar companies aren’t happy

Source: By Chris Mooney, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, September 15, 2016

The 550MW Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is located in the Chuckwalla Valley in east Riverside County, Calif. on 3,600 acres of federal land. (Courtesy of First Solar, Inc.)

After eight years of work, federal land managers Wednesday finalized a sweeping plan apportioning nearly 11 million publicly owned acres of the California desert among different uses — including recreation, conservation, and the development of renewable energy projects.

And while the decision by the Bureau of Land Management largely satisfied some stakeholders — particularly conservationists who have been battling to protect iconic species that inhabit this ecosystem like the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep — clean energy interests protested upon learning that only 388,000 acres would be explicitly set aside for renewable energy. That’s the same amount of area as in an earlier draft of the plan that these groups had strongly criticized.

About 6.57 million acres of a landscape that stretches from near Los Angeles all the way to the Arizona and Nevada borders will be set aside for conservation, with no development allowed, and a partially overlapping 3.595 million acres will be designated for recreational activities. There are an additional nearly 500,000 acres that, while not explicitly designated for clean energy, might also be used for this purpose, if applications are approved by the agency.

“We’re signing this important decision that continues the BLM’s commitment to renewable energy in the desert as well as providing for the conservation of the natural cultural and recreational resources of this environment that we manage,” said Jerry Perez, California State Director for the Bureau of Land Management, in an interview.

In a signal of the importance of the decision, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell traveled to Palm Springs, Calif., to announce it Wednesday at a public event. “We pulled up, and looked at conservation on a landscape scale,” said Jewell, whose department includes the Bureau of Land Management. “And that is the wave of the future.”

Perez said that the finalized plan had not changed that much in comparison with earlier versions. But he noted that in response to complaints from industry, the agency had clarified a number of so-called “conservation management actions” that would be required before companies could develop on land designated for renewable energy.

And Karen Douglas, a commissioner of the California Energy Commission who supports the plan, said that the allocated acreage would be sufficient to help California meet its ambitious clean energy goals.”From the Energy Commission’s perspective, having BLM designate about 600 square miles of land for development in the desert is a big help for us in meeting those goals,” Douglas said.

The federal decision document, itself, suggests that the 388,000 acres allocated for renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal energy can support projects totaling 27 gigawatts, or billion watts, of energy capacity.

But the solar and wind industries, which had strongly criticized a prior version of the plan for cutting off development opportunities, expressed strong disappointment Wednesday.

In a statement, Shannon Eddy, the executive director of the Large-Scale Solar Association, charged the plan “is a Model T in a Tesla world. Rather than fostering sustainable clean energy development as a part of a conservation plan, it severely restricts wind and solar.”

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, as it is called, arose out of a confluence of events — more and more applications for big-scale solar projects in the California Desert, even as conservationists increasingly worried about species like the tortoise, which suffer from a range of threats, not least of them climate change.

[Why Big Solar and environmentalists are clashing over the California desert

This led to a number of conflicts between two groups that, you might think, would be allies. Namely, clean energy developers — particular solar developers, who view the California desert as an ideal place for large scale facilities like the Desert Sunlight solar plant, which covers nearly 6 square miles and can generate 550 megawatts, or million watts, of continuous electricity — and conservationists.

Trying to reconcile ever more clean energy installations with conservation goals is what set in motion the plan — an enormous effort by multiple federal and state agencies, as well as the many interest groups involved, including solar and wind industry trade groups and major environmental organizations.

Members of the latter group have generally praised the plan, while in some cases wishing it could have been even stronger. Dan Smuts, who directs the Pacific Region for the Wilderness Society, called the plan “a thoughtful and balanced blueprint for the future of the California desert” in a statement Wednesday.

But Ileene Anderson, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, called it “a compromise plan that provides more than enough land to reach California’s current renewable-energy goals and beyond, but it fails to adequately protect important wildlife habitat.”

The Bureau of Land Management has argued that by more explicitly designating which areas are suitable for solar and other clean energy developments, past conflicts will be lessened and industry will have more predictability in what it can expect when trying to go forward with a large-scale project.

“We’ve created a certainty, here are the places that we see are the best places for development,” Perez said. “If someone brought forward a project, those are the areas where there are more certainty, and efficiency in how we would move through the analysis process.”

A major remaining point of contention is a promised second phase of the plan that would make similar designations on private rather than public lands, doing so in conjunction with the various California state counties, like Riverside and San Bernardino, that contain the most promising land for clean energy development.

But the solar industry argues that that process won’t give them much new land to work with either. “Renewable energy developers doubt that the next phase will yield the lands necessary to meet long-term energy and climate goals,” said the Solar Energy Industries Association in a press release.