Desert Sun Article Blames Conservation for Lull in Energy Development

A Desert Sun article erroneously suggests that the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) is to blame for a lull in new utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands in the California desert.  The more significant reason - economics - is buried in the piece, while the rest of the article gives the (industry-favored) impression that something has to give - either we sacrifice even more of the desert or we're left with no solution to climate change. 

The timing of the article couldn't be better for the industry.  Californians are eager to prove the Trump administration wrong and increase renewable energy generation, while the Trump administration is eager to please industry and roll back protections for public lands.  But the article pushes an inaccurate premise that rolling back conservation designations in the desert is going to be necessary to meet a more aggressive renewable energy target in California.

The problems with the article start with a title that gives an editorial boost to industry's hollow complaints: "Solar and wind are booming — just not in the California desert."

It seems that you could replace "California desert" with any other intact natural area and the piece's skew in favor of industry becomes more apparent.   "Solar and wind are booming -- just not in the Yosemite Valley."  "Solar and wind are booming -- just not in the Brazilian rainforest." The article bets on readers assuming the California desert is a wide open space waiting to be developed; an assumption that the energy industry has pushed.  And it assumes that if projects are not always "booming" in the desert - even though they are booming elsehwere - then something is wrong.

The title also adopts an unclear definition of "booming."  Anybody that has driven around Blythe or the Ivanpah Valley, Palm Springs, or the western Mojave know that renewable energy is booming in the California desert.  There are nearly 3,000 wind turbines spinning around the San Gorgonio pass sprawled across 50 square miles.  And nearly 70 square miles of wind projects sprawling around the towns of Tehachapi and Mojave.  Turbines towering over Ocotillo.  A solar project covering six square miles of once-intact wildlands next to Joshua Tree National Park, and three solar power towers burning birds and natural gas in the Ivanpah Valley.  Several square miles of desert are being converted into massive solar farms near the town of Blythe, and hundreds of megawatts of solar projects are under construction or completed in the Imperial Valley and around the town of Lancaster.  To name a few.

Industry representatives and Desert Sun say that renewable energy is not booming in the Mojave Desert. Pictured above is just a portion of wind development around the town of Mojave.

It is true that new project proposals on public lands have slowed down recently.  The Desert Sun article lead blames the DRECP for this downturn.  The article quotes industry lobbyists who say that the reason for the lull is the lack of space made available to the projects and rules put in place by the DRECP.
The wind industry's wants access to the purple areas above.

The article then misrepresents how much space is available to industry.  It says that the DRECP only designates 668 square miles of land for renewable energy development.  That is the amount of area identified as Development Focus Areas and variance lands.  But the final DRECP allows development on unallocated lands, bringing the total area available to industry up to 1,920 square miles.  That is just the area made available to industry on public lands in the California desert.  Many more square miles are viable energy development sites on private lands in the same region and throughout the rest of the state. 

The DRECP actually plans for as much as 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy development in the California desert region. Considering that Los Angeles County alone can host 22,000 megawatts of rooftop solar, it seems almost ridiculous that the industry is complaining that it "only" has access to 1,920 square miles of intact public lands. 

But buried in the article is the more significant reason for the current lull in new renewable energy proposals on public lands in California. Helen O'Shea of the NRDC nails it on the head:

"...the relative lack of big new solar projects in the desert has less to do with the federal regulations, and more to do with market and policy factors — such as the drying up of incentives from President Barack Obama's 2009 stimulus package, and the fact that California utilities are already on track to meet their 2020 renewable energy targets."

It was those incentives that made it profitable for companies to bulldoze intact desert tortoise habitat and build projects with essentially experimental technology.  And utility companies, with an urgent need to buy more renewable energy to meet renewable portfolio standard (RPS) goals by 2020, paid high premiums for the electricity. 

Energy industry representatives now point to California's plans to hike the RPS up to 100% as a reason that they need more access to public lands in the California desert.  Even with a 100% RPS, it is not clear that industry needs more than 1,920 square miles of public lands in the California desert.  They haven't exhausted those options, or private lands, or lands elsewhere in the state.  So why should we accept this false urgency to roll back conservation measures in the desert?

For those of us that tracked the wave of renewable energy projects that hit around 2008, there is no doubt that the new RPS will spur yet another deluge of energy projects.  And it wont take long for projects to start popping up across the 1,920 square miles that the DRECP has made available to industry. 

Hopefully we will also see policies that encourage investment in distributed energy resources, such as rooftop solar and battery storage, to spare our intact wildlands from another industrial rush on our public lands.

Rooftop solar.  It is not that hard.  There are already 5,254 megawatts of rooftop solar installed in California.  With the right incentives, it can be an even bigger part of our climate solution.


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