Wednesday, October 8, 2014

DRECP Fact of the Day: 20,000 Megawatts

This is an important number in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP).  The State and Federal agencies that drafted the DRECP start with the assumption that the California desert region may need to host at least 20,000 megawatts of large-scale wind, solar or geothermal energy projects by the year 2040.  Based on this assumption, the DRECP agencies calculated how many acres would need to be designated as development focus areas (DFAs) to accommodate these 20,000 megawatts.
This is what the DRECP does not mention: a study by the UCLA's Luskin Center for Innovation calculated that the rooftops in Los Angeles County alone could accommodate over 22,000 megawatts of solar panels.  As I pointed out in my earlier post on the DRECP, the plan unfortunately discarded an alternative that would consist only of distributed generation (solar panels on rooftops, over parking lots, and other spaces in our cities).   The DRECP's purpose and need statement (Volume I.1) makes it clear that the Department of Interior and California Energy Commission assume that it is necessary to industrialize desert wildlands for large-scale renewable energy projects, so we're fighting an uphill battle in convincing the powers that be that there is a more sustainable and wildlife-friendly way to generate clean energy.  
For the sake of dissecting the rest of the DRECP's assumptions, we'll look at what the document says, but we should not forget that the DRECP underestimates the potential of distributed generation. To accommodate 20,000 megawatts of large-scale renewable energy in the desert, the DRECP designates over 2 million acres of DFAs.  However, the DRECP purposefully inflates the number of DFA acres because it anticipates that ultimately not every single acre of the DFAs will be available to renewable energy developers.  The DRECP expects that renewable energy companies will be unable to develop some parts of the DFAs because of local permitting constraints, wildlife concerns, access to transmission, or other issues.  So they over shot in their designation of DFAs to ensure that the renewable energy industry will have ample opportunity to build large-scale projects. 

With the right incentives and policies, we could tap the vast potential of spaces in our cities to generate clean energy.  The DRECP, however, assumes that we will need to bulldoze hundreds of square miles of desert to tap solar and wind resources, even though the technology allows us to do so without such destruction.
But how did we get to 20,000 megawatts?  The "Planning Process" section of the DRECP (specifically, Volume I.3, page I.3-43) attempts to lay out how they arrived at the 20,000 megawatt number.  The document states that this is how many megawatts of clean energy the desert region will be expected to generate in the year 2040 when demand for energy is expected to be much higher than today because of a bigger population and increased use of plug-in electric vehicles.  What is less clear in the document is how much of the overall burden the desert is expected to carry compared to the rest of the State.  Does the plan account for the potential development of wave energy or wind projects off the coast of Los Angeles?

The plan also doesn't make clear how the calculation accounts for projections that renewable energy technology and energy conservation efforts will become more efficient over time.  Solar panels in the year 2025 will likely generate more energy per acre than solar panels in 2015, and some of our appliances will hopefully use less energy in 2030 than they do today.

Much of the technical calculations that go into the 20,000MW assumption were discussed and decided in DRECP stakeholder meetings back in 2012 or earlier.  But we're left to squabble over the impacts of these assumptions, and we are not given much room to question why our renewable energy future has to look so much like our current energy paradigm - involving the wholesale destruction of the land to blindly feed the mantra of economic growth and increasing conumsption.

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