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Environment & Science

Independent panel says California's lost its balance on science of desert energy development

Solar panels in the Mojave Desert
Solar panels in the Mojave Desert

When everybody got interested in developing large-scale solar in California's deserts, the keyword became balance. How do we balance preserving the desert ecosystem with getting more renewables? Can we keep a balance of economic and environmental interests? How will we monitor and preserve a balanced ecosystem in the face of new human activity?

The state - with the federal government - drew up the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. It's a planning effort focused on LA, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, Inyo, Kern and San Diego counties, covering more than 22 1/2 million acres of federal and state land. DRECP, as it's affectionately called, is supposed to produce "an efficient and effective biological mitigation and conservation program providing renewable project developers with permit timing and cost certainty…while at the same time preserving, restoring and enhancing natural communities and related ecosystems."

In other words, balance. 

Key to the success of this group is supposed to be scientific buy-in. So from close to the beginning, the DRECP has consulted with an Independent Science Panel; first, a group of a dozen; now, four of the original group, plus several more

That panel's initial recommendations are out for this year. And they're alarming. The ISP is "deeply concerned with the scientific quality" of DRECP's work and methodology. The Science Panel unanimously concluded that DRECP: 

is unlikely to produce a scientifically defensible plan without making immediate and significant course corrections, including strengthening leadership of the scientific program, increasing transparency in decision-making and documentation, improving scientific and technical foundations and analyses, and improving integration and synthesis of all analytical processes and products.  

This group's work follows another report from 2010, which had made its own series of recommendations. The 2012 ISP report notes that of the ideas floated by the 2010 team, "the majority appear to have been handled inadequately or ignored."

The scientists recommend that DRECP change its methodology so that it "employs feedback from monitoring and research studies to continually improve the plan."

If solar (and wind, and geothermal) energy is going to be developed in an ongoing way, the scientists are saying, you've got to have an ongoing relationship with science, too. That's what adaptive management is, monitoring the system's response to the decisions you make, and adjusting. 

I remember in 2010, speaking to environmental groups that generally backed the creation of "fast-track" areas. Those supporters thought that California can find the balance between greenhouse gas mitigation through renewables and ecosystem protection through desert conservation. A big reason they said that would happen in California was that the state was listening to scientists as it took action.

I'm skeptical this has been happening, and I'm skeptical it will happen. Do you think the DRECP's practices can, or should, change?