February 1, 2014

Renewable energy policy enters final act


Soda Mountains Solar project map. (BLM)
Written by David Lamfrom
Desert Sun

The renewable energy policy world is filled with government agencies, corporations, conservation groups — and a tyranny of intimidating acronyms. The California desert continues to serve as a petri dish for renewable energy development, which has produced both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde results, thus far. The stage is set for the next phase in renewable energy planning, and we can’t afford another failed experiment.

The goal of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), shaped by the state of California, the Department of Interior and dozens of important landowners and stakeholders, is to strike balance between protecting species and spaces, while appropriately furthering renewable energy, including solar, wind and geothermal development.

The DRECP builds upon the massive Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, (Solar PEIS), which set policy for six western states including California; created solar zones like Riverside East (the country’s largest); and, smartly, reduced the western federal lands open to solar development from 100 million acres to 20 million acres.

It also clarified where projects should be sited and supported planning to protect diverse and, in some cases, endangered species and resources. It eliminated the proposed Iron Mountain solar zone nearby to Joshua Tree National Park, which would have disconnected critical wildlife corridors between that park and protected mountain ranges north.

The DRECP process will refine the Solar PEIS, with a lens on the California desert. While the DRECP is on a larger scale, it is similar to the Coachella Valley Multiple Species Habitat Plan, in its mission to protect critical species and habitats. If approved, the DRECP will be the dominant solar energy guide for at least the next 25-40 years. In short: It’s a big deal that we all need to pay attention to.

At last count, the California desert alone has more than 1 million acres of disturbed lands or previously developed lands that may be more appropriate for solar panels and associated development. Although even on disturbed lands, thoughtful decision-making is still necessary, particularly where species and cultural conflicts lie. Protecting places that neighbor our national parks and other wildlife-rich lands that infuse billions of dollars into our local economies is of utmost importance. We urge Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to take thoughtful action on this landscape-level conservation plan.

A conservation legacy that fosters recreation and tourism has bloomed over the past 20 years in the California desert. Thoughtful planning is crucial to ensuring its longevity. The draft DRECP is expected to be released for public comment in May.

While conversations between the plan authors and many concerned parties including the National Parks Conservation Association is leading to improvements, poorly sited projects that would harm our national parks and negatively impact desert communities that financially rely on them continue to be considered.

An Eagle Crest pumped storage proposal slurps critical water, is a net energy loser and threatens Joshua Tree National Park. Bechtel’s Soda Mountain solar proposal is a quarter-mile from Mojave National Preserve. Iberdrola’s poorly sited wind and solar proposal would sit on the Old Spanish Trail, just south of Death Valley National Park. And First Solar is seeking approval for yet another poorly sited project in the now infamous Ivanpah Valley.

Dramatic negative impacts to desert tortoises and to Mojave National Preserve through projects like Ivanpah Solar gave a black eye to the renewable energy industry. The DRECP must avoid harmful projects that erode public trust and counter the plan’s purpose. Only by doing so can we ensure a future that we can all take pride in.

David Lamfrom is the senior desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. Email him at dlamfrom@npca.org