Environment & Science

New plan looks to balance desert conservation with renewable energy

The sun sets at Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Photo taken at Boy Scout Trail head.
The sun sets at Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday, May 29, 2014. Photo taken at Boy Scout Trail head.
Richard Lui/The Desert Sun


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Looking to balance efforts to boost renewable energy with protecting wildlife, state and federal officials released a plan Tuesday that sets aside vast swaths of California desert for both purposes. (The executive summary of the plan is embedded below.)

In the works for five years, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan carves out nearly 10 percent of 22.5 million acres of southeastern California for new solar, wind and geothermal energy facilities. The plan also nearly doubles the amount of conservation land in the area, protecting a total of 13.7 million acres. More study will be done on an additional 183,000 acres to determine the appropriate use for them. 

The 8,000-page plan aims to open the door for more renewable energy in a state that wants to get 33% of its power from those sources by 2020. At the same time, the plan addresses the concerns of some environmentalists by conserving fragile desert habitat for a number of plants and animals.

The plan anticipates 20,000 megawatts of energy from renewable power plants scattered over southeastern California from the Mexican border to the Owens Valley. See the map of the project area below.

The California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service led development of the plan, consulting with the counties of San Diego, Imperial, San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles, Kern and Inyo.

Federal secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell called the project "a major milestone."

"What we now have is a roadmap that can be used in other areas around the country," Jewell said. "I hope we can get more across the finish line before the two-and-a-half years are up for my time in this job."

John Laird, California's Secretary of Natural Resources, emphasized that the project has two goals. "How do you do durability of habitat restoration and how do you do certainty of renewable generation, and do them regionally?" he said. "We can meet both of those goals."

The plan is sprawling, complex, and a couple of years late. It was originally authorized by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2009, after the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and related laws aimed to streamline environmental review and bring renewable energy onto the grid from desert areas. The ARRA, on top of earlier streamlining efforts authorized in a federal energy law passed in 2005, enabled rapid construction for projects on private and public lands

The ensuing “gold rush” for large-scale projects, particularly those harnessing solar power, raised objections from some environmental and conservation groups. Groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, Basin and Range Watch, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club argued that “fast-tracking” projects created insufficient protections for a fragile desert ecosystem and the species that live within it.

Federal and state officials didn’t acknowledge the concerns directly. But they did begin to apply greater scrutiny to siting solar and wind projects.

"Now that we're moving into the next phase of this, we really have to watch how this works out in the mitigation, and the compliance and the construction of the projects that have been permitted, and we really have to focus on the long-term planning effort," the California Energy Commission’s Karen Douglas told KPCC in 2010.

Officials say the newly-released plan includes conservation efforts for bighorn sheep, Mojave ground squirrels, desert tortoises, golden eagles – all of which have come into conflict with solar development.

National and local environment groups, sometimes at odds over the balance between conservation and energy development, shared a cautiously optimistic outlook the day the draft plan was released. 

"The plan has to have large conservation areas that are important for protecting tortoise, big horn sheep, and the Mojave ground squirrel, because with climate change we’re going to need to allow space for the animals to move around," said Defenders of Wildlife's Kim Delfino, who added that she hoped that public meetings and comments in the next several months could help convince the DRECP's authors to narrow the land set aside for large-scale solar development even further. 

The Union of Concerned Scientists, the Wilderness Society, and the Natural Resources Defense Council heaped praise on the plan at and even before its release.

"This landmark effort can provide a blueprint for responsible renewable energy development while safeguarding the desert’s special places and species," said the NRDC's Helen O'Shea. "And it can play a critical role in our efforts to fight climate change and develop a sustainable clean energy future.”

But some conservation activists stressed that they support the broader goal of clean energy, even as they remain skeptical of its place in the desert.

Ileene Anderson with the Center for Biological Diversity called for federal incentives for distributed solar generation, as in urban areas, on rooftops and parking lots. “Significantly increasing solar power close to the source of energy use such as rooftops, parking lots and community-oriented renewable energy projects is also critically needed to rapidly phase out fossil fuel energy and reduce emissions," she said, in a written statement. "Distributed solar is a win for climate change, clean energy and our treasured desert.” 

The plan would not affect existing renewable energy facilities such as the Ivanpah solar plant operated by BrightSource near the Nevada border. The facility, which uses an array of mirrors to focus sunlight and generate power, has come under controversy for blinding pilots and motorists and for incinerating birds flying through the intense reflections. 

Public comment is now open for the DRECP until January 9. Officials say public meetings are in the works.

This story will be updated.