The Secretary of Interior on Wednesday will finalize the Federal portion of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) after years of effort by Federal, State, and local agencies to identify which lands will be conserved for future generations, and which lands will be zoned for utility-scale renewable energy projects.
Interior released the final environmental analysis for the plan in November 2015. Wednesday's roll out of a Record of Decision normally would constitute a rubber stamp approval of that analysis and officially put the plan into effect, but there are indications that Interior has tinkered further with the plan. Here are some things to look for in the announcement, broken down by different stakeholders calls for changes to the plan:
Not Enough Destruction Zones: The renewable energy industry has loudly complained that the 600+ square miles of new industrial zones – known as Development Focus Areas (DFA) – that the DRECP is expected to designate in the California desert is not enough. They want more “flexibility” to build a project wherever they please, which is ironic because that is the same problem that necessitated the DRECP in the first place. As California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas stated, "large-scale renewable energy, especially on public land, is not the only game in town.”
It just doesn't seem like industry got the message.
According to a statement given to the Press-Enterprise, Interior may have made changes to the plan to address industry concerns. Although we do not yet know what those changes are, Interior could have loosened some of the siting guidelines that were designed to minimize impacts on wildlife and sensitive habitats. It is also possible that Interior added more DFA lands, a move that would certainly rankle local residents and desert conservationists. I think it is less than likely for Interior to add DFAs in the Record of Decision, but if they do they may also add additional conservation designations in other areas. In order to justify the added DFAs, Interior would have to select lands analyzed in one of its previous alternatives for DFA potential. I would especially keep an eye on any lands identified in the final environmental analysis as variance lands for potential to switch to DFAs.
Ideally Interior would do nothing to placate industry's over wrought concerns because 1.) 600+ square miles of DFAs is more than enough, 2.) is in addition to the vast swaths of desert already industrialized for large solar and wind projects, 3.) and is in addition to the hundreds of square miles of potential private land locations for renewable energy projects.
Construction crews remove old growth desert habitat for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project in California.
No Destruction Necessary: This is the position of many residents of the region and groups like Basin & Range Watch and the Desert Protective Council. They point to the fact that the right policies can encourage distributed clean energy generation in our backyards, on our rooftops, and over parking lots, without the need to destroy desert wild lands. A UCLA study has identified enough rooftop solar potential in Los Angeles County alone to meet the region's clean energy needs. And this does not count the potential for solar car ports covering existing parking lots or larger solar projects on already-disturbed lands.
Doubling down on policies that incentivize rooftop solar, projects on already-disturbed lands, and distributed storage solutions seem like a no-brainer because they make the grid more resilient, cut the need for expensive transmission lines, and spare our wildlands from destruction. But Interior has made it clear that they plan to facilitate the construction of utility-scale energy projects on otherwise intact desert wildlands to satisfy political demands and cater to an industry that mirrors the fossil fuel empire's appetite for public lands.
|A simple and beautiful solution to climate change. Generating clean energy closest to the point of use. On our homes and businesses.|
Environmentalists also called on Interior to extend conservation designations to areas identified as important habitat but left unallocated in the final analysis. These lands include the Soda Mountain area near Baker, desert tortoise habitat west of Ludlow, and remote desert pockets near Death Valley. Again, it is less than likely Interior will significantly adjust land designations in the Record of Decision. If they do add conservation designations, you can expect to see a commensurate addition of DFAs.
We don't know if Jewell will mention plans for Phase II of the DRECP that will focus on identifying private lands for conservation or renewable energy development.
In many ways, the first phase of the DRECP was a simpler task because it focuses on public lands, for which Interior has the administrative capacity to confer land use designations. Phase II will require much more work with multiple counties to ensure that plans reflect each county's vision for development and conservation. That's no easy task as county decision makers face backlash not only for industrializing open space, but also criticism from business if they support conservation measures.
Conservation of private lands will also require money to either buy the lands outright or purchase conservation easements. But some of these lands are critically important and vulnerable to development. The initial DRECP analysis identified thousands of acres of private lands that would need to be protected in San Bernardino County to preserve a key wildlife corridor near Lucerne Valley. And Los Angeles County is home to thousands of acres of unprotected desert grassland and dwindling Joshua tree and juniper habitat near Palmdale.
|Joshua tree woodland habitat in the western Mojave has been bulldozed to make way for urban sprawl and renewable energy development, much of it on private land.|
And with Interior considering listing the Joshua Tree as an endangered species, just look at the Joshua tree habitat under assault in the western Mojave by urban sprawl and renewable energy development across Kern, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino counties. Much of it on private land. And herein lies the challenge for Phase II: how do we protect important habitat that currently remains intact on private land, but is often more important to counties as a tax base than a place to preserve biodiversity?