California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation (SB 34) this week that intends to speed up the certification process for solar energy proposals under consideration by the California Energy Commission (CEC). The law allows the State to collect developer fees (at least $75,000 for each application) from companies applying for solar energy permits that would fund a dedicated staff to conduct the environmental impact review.
The law also creates the Renewable Energy Development Fee Trust, which would create a centralized process for collecting mitigation funds assessed by the CEC for specific proposals. The State and Federal agencies would then use these funds for mitigation efforts to off-set the environmental impacts. It is not yet clear how this mechanism fits in with the efforts of the "Renewable Energy Action Team," (subject of a previous post) which also sought to streamline the mitigation cost collection and distribution.
According to the text of SB 34, the solar companies would no longer have to take direct action to fulfill specific mitigation conditions other than paying into the fund. Presumably, this means that BrightSource Energy or other energy companies would not be responsible for locating and acquiring conservation land. Instead, the State would undertake this process with funds provided by the companies. During evidentiary hearings in January, BrightSource Energy balked at having to find and acquire land with minimal direction from CEC or BLM. Personally, I think this part of the legislation could lead to better results, since the acquisition of conservation lands can be taken care of from a central office with an eye toward locating and setting aside land with the most biological value. The previous process left the door open for each solar company to buy land scattered throughout the Mojave, which potentially could have drifted from the goals and standards of strategic Mojave conservation plans.
This still leaves the question of how judicious the CEC will be with future solar certifications. The Ivanpah case is almost a done deal, but there are other sites with potentially large negative impacts on Mojave wildlife, such as the Ridgecrest Solar site.