June 29, 2009

Accelerated solar site review includes Mojave Desert acreage in the Inland region

The Press-Enterprise

The U.S. secretary of the interior on Monday declared 676,000 acres of the Southwest -- half in Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- as prime areas for large-scale solar energy development.

The action means that applications to build projects in the 24 solar study areas, including vast sections of desert in the two counties, will be fast-tracked to meet federal energy goals, Secretary Ken Salazar announced at a news conference in Las Vegas.

President Barack Obama has ordered that 10 percent of the nation's power come from renewable sources by next year and 25 percent by 2025.

The streamlined review and approval process would take one year, instead of three to four years, Interior spokesman Frank Quimby said.

Three of the study areas are in the Mojave Desert: one off Highway 40, northwest of the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Base, and two east of Joshua Tree National Park.

The federal proposal includes four times as much land as environmental groups wanted.

The Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and other groups had recommended 85,000 acres in the Mojave, said Steve Borchard, district manager of the Bureau of Land Management's California Desert District.

But the newly announced priority areas cover about 338,000 acres. The government estimates that if that land is fully developed, the solar energy plants could produce 37,500 to more than 67,500 megawatts of electricity, enough to provide power to millions of homes. Not necessarily all of the land will be developed, Salazar said.

Currently, 31 of the 35 projects already in the works in the study areas, which span six states, are in the California desert, Borchard said. The BLM and Department of Energy are drafting environmental studies for the solar development zones, which will save time on the permitting process.

Joan Taylor, California-Nevada desert energy chairwoman for The Sierra Club, called the declaration "a knife through the heart of the desert."

The territories the government selected cover much more land than what's needed to reach renewable energy goals, she said. They also cross wildlife corridors that connect the Mojave Desert ecosystems and are too close to the Joshua Tree National Park, she said.

Taylor and other environmentalists said the government should start closer to urban centers, where energy transmission lines already are in place, rather than focusing on core desert areas.

Only lands with the most sunshine, suitable slope, proximity to roads and transmission lines or designated energy corridors, and containing at least 2,000 acres of BLM-administered public lands were considered for solar energy study areas. Important wildlife habitat and wilderness as well as lands with conflicting uses were excluded, according to a government news release.

The highest priority will be given to 13 projects that are furthest along in planning and will be able to meet a December 2010 deadline for funding and the creation of 50,000 jobs through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, said Greg Miller, renewable energy program manager for the California desert district.

Ten of those projects are in his district. They include Stirling Energy's Solar One near Barstow and Solar Two in El Centro; Britesource near Primm, Nev.; three Chevron projects, one near Barstow and two along Interstate 10 between Desert Center and Blythe; a First Solar project in Desert Center; Nextera near Blythe; and Solar Millennium in Ridgecrest, Miller said.

The BLM still is considering 92 solar project applications in other areas of the desert.