January 26, 2009

Mapping California deserts for projects, protection

Desert Sun

State officials are mapping the California desert to identify what to designate for renewable energy projects and what to protect.

At the direction of the governor, energy and wildlife experts are trying to get ahead of potential solar, geothermal and wind projects that could lead to acres of solar panels and miles of transmission lines.

Protected areas such as those in the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan are in the review area, but state staff members expect them to benefit from the state effort.

‘‘We think this can help local entities reach their conservation goals sooner,'' said Kevin Hunting, who oversees the work for the state Department of Fish and Game.

He added: ‘‘I think there is a nice fit with the Coachella Valley plan and the (state) desert plan.''

The work on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan generally is welcomed in the local area, where it's seen as a way to avoid haphazard development that could undermine the desert quality of life.

‘‘It's going to happen,'' Riverside County Supervisor Roy Wilson said of renewable development. ‘‘We want it to be well-planned.''

He, Supervisor Marion Ashley and local Sierra Club representative Joan Taylor agreed that habitat planning is important before major new generating plants or transmission lines are built.

Initial assessments indicate potential renewable sites for 6,748 gigawatt hours per year in the region that includes Palm Springs, Twentynine Palms and eastern Riverside County, and there are dozens of applications for renewable projects on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land in the desert.

‘‘Basically, if they are put in the wrong places, it could be a disaster for the desert ecosystem,'' said Taylor, who lives in Palm Springs.

But Ashley added that he also is looking at ways to tap energy projects to help finance the rescue of the Salton Sea, where wildlife and the sea are threatened by increased salinity and diversion plans for some water now flowing into the sea.

‘‘There should be a fee for restoration of the Salton Sea,'' Ashley said.

The goal is to speed up the development of renewable energy to help the state reduce greenhouse gas and switch to cleaner fuel by predetermining the best sites for renewable energy development.

Developers wouldn't have use these sites, but those that do would save time by capitalizing on environmental reviews done for those spots.

‘‘It dramatically reduces the time it takes for an applicant on a renewable energy project to get from drawing board to generating electricity,'' Hunting said.

The review, which covers the Colorado and Mojave desert regions, was ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Nov. 17 executive order that called for a third of the state's electricity to be produced by renewable power by 2020.

Now it's about 12 percent.

In his proposed 2009-10 budget, the governor recommended spending $5.6 million on this effort by the two agencies.

While the budget has yet to be approved, work has already begun on the desert plan with existing funds.

It is being coordinated with an older state project, the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, that is primarily focused on ensuring adequate transmission for renewable energy projects needed to meet state targets.

The desert plan is meant to provide environmental reviews of the best sites for renewable projects based on such issues as their value for energy production and access to transmission lines, while designating environmentally sensitive sites for long-term protection.

The executive order calls for the draft plan to be done by the end of 2010 and the final plan by June 1, 2012. The goal is to cut the processing time of permits for projects in designated areas by at least 50 percent.

With 80 percent of proposed solar development on federal land, the desert planning project also includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

All together, Hunting said 24 local, six federal and a dozen state agencies have some say in energy development.