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Solimar Research

Enviros, Others Clash Over Desert Solar Plan

Martha Bridegam on
May 17, 2015

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) has taken on the difficult task of bringing high-flown talk about renewable energy goals down, literally, to earth, in the form of land use planning. It's asking members of the energy, planning and environmental fields to cooperate in adding a new dimension to the meaning of property ownership in California's southeastern deserts. 

But it's also running into resistance from local governments that don't want the plan to restrict their own land use power; Imperial County, for example, has banned new solar facilities. And some environmental groups are criticizing the plan because of the potential environmental impact of large-scale solar and other renewable energy facilities. It's an ironic clash between a governor who wants rapid progress on renewable energy and local and environmental groups who are concerned about the environmental impact of large-scale solar facilities.

The plan is a state and federal "landscape-scale" effort to find room in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts for large wind, solar and geothermal projects that would generate 20,000 more megawatts of power by 2040. It's driven by ambitious state carbon-reduction goals, especially the current Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires utilities to buy 33% of all their energy from renewable sources by 2020. This standard is driven, in turn, by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Executive Order S-3-05 to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, and Gov. Jerry Brown's recent Executive Order B-30-15, which sets an interim goal of 40% reduction by 2030.

The plan is further encouraged by less strenuous federal policies promoting alternative energy. The affected area extends from Calexico to the Tehachapis to the Owens Valley across some 22.5 million acres in seven California counties: Inyo, Kern, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside, Imperial and (less extensively) San Diego.   

The 20,000-megawatt scale of the plan presumes that by 2040 California will be populated by some 48 million people who draw about two-thirds of their electricity from zero-carbon sources without the help of nuclear power, using long jolts of that power to run at least 18 million electric vehicles.

That scenario presumes California will restrict emissions more sharply in the future in order to meet the goal of the two executive orders. The DRECP plan's calculations presume about two-thirds of energy used in California will have to be from renewable sources by 2040. In his inaugural speech this January, Governor Brown called for increasing renewables from 33% in 2020 to 50% in 2030. Bills are pending in the Legislature to write the 50% goal into law: AB 197, AB 645 and SB 350

(Separately, an appeal before the California Supreme Court is testing how much consideration metropolitan planning organizations must give to EO S-3-05 in preparing Sustainable Communities Strategies. State Sen. Fran Pavley has introduced SB 32, which would anticipate the court's ruling by writing EO S-3-05 GHG reduction standard into law more firmly.)

Managed Collision

Environmental advocates, local officials and others have different ideas about the uses and purposes of desert land and the means available to generate and conserve power. Among key criticisms is the allegation expressed in a Basin & Range Watch comment that "As drafted, the DRECP errs by positioning a single means, utility-scale desert renewable energy, to be an end unto itself." 

In interviews, California Energy Commission officials defended the plan as an exercise in understanding existing policy -- working out where and how sufficient generation projects can be built to meet state renewable-energy goals that are already established policy. To them, the plan innovates by working to connect the institutional worlds of energy planning and land use planning in a large-scale advance regional planning process, rather than wait for those worlds to collide piecemeal in the contexts of individual projects.

"Land use types of considerations in planning have not traditionally been thought of very much in energy planning at all," said Karen Douglas, who is the lead California Energy Commission member for the DRECP process. Where planners or local officials would view local land use permitting, including CEQA environmental review, as the central "point of approval" for a project, she said energy planning focuses more on procurement and transmission. 

The disconnect is such that the 2014 Integrated Energy Planning Report mentions a stakeholders' discussion where parties disagreed on what might seem an elementary question: "whether and how environmental information should factor into procurement." (That's in Chapter 8 of the report, which Douglas recommended as relevant context; the chapter also discusses long-term progress in connecting procurement processes with land use planning.)

The DRECP plan seeks to merge these two planning processes farther upstream. It would steer utility-scale renewable energy projects toward "development focus areas" while shielding more valued cultural and natural resources under the National Landscape Conservation System or requiring mitigation. It would coordinate regulatory changes and agreements among multiple agencies, led by the "Renewable Energy Action Team" (REAT): the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Because the DRECP applies previously established energy policies, Douglas said "what this project does not do is affect the state energy policy decisions going forward about how we're going to achieve our goals." For example, she said, it doesn't control how strongly the state encourages or subsidizes rooftop solar generation. Hence, in discussing the rooftop solar issue, she said, "What I hope is that people don't see sending a comment letter in on the DRECP as the most effective step to promote rooftop solar if that's their overall goal." 

Begun under Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the planning process has continued through multiple changes of leadership. Douglas said she and Kevin Hunting, chief deputy director at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, had worked on the whole process from Schwarzenegger's first executive order, while Michael Picker served as lead representative from both governors' offices, and was succeeded by Ken Alex, director of the Office of Planning and Research, as of Picker's appointment to head the California Public Utilities Commission.

12,000 Comments

Some 12,000 comments were submitted by the February 23 comment deadline for the DRECP's draft Environmental Impact Report and Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS). Generally those letters did not hark back to the happy notions that were popular during Governor Edmund "Jerry" Brown's first term about solar and wind generators as environmentally benign sources of free energy. Instead, many insisted that although wind, solar and geothermal power sites make minimal use of fossil fuels, the habitats and human land use possibilities that they displace aren't so renewable. 

Comments were thick with technical recitals of 21st-century limits and protests about embattled desert tortoises, unique oases facing groundwater risks, and constricted tax bases. They reflected a political transition, driven by the recent Recovery Act solar projects, toward identifying large-scale "clean" energy plants with the hazards of grandiose public works rather than the benefits of avoiding fossil fuels. 

(In a few current renewable energy conflicts meanwhile, Inyo County has passed a General Plan amendment discouraging solar thermal projects such as the Hidden Hills installation, and the Energy Commission joined the county in opposing that project. Imperial County has placed a moratorium on new solar project permits. Recently the Commission posted a report saying that about 3,500 birds appear to have been killed by the Ivanpah thermal solar generator in one year. And the Manzanar Committee has been petitioning against a plan by the L.A. Department of Water and Power to place a "Solar Ranch" installation near the Manzanar National Historic Site.

Environmental advocates -- and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) argued in their comments that the proposal, in planning for 20,000 megawatts of additional renewable power, overstated the need for large installations. They argued the DRECP paid too little attention to air and water impacts, and would not sufficiently protect important habitats and resources, such as parts of the Amargosa River watershed. 

But some utility advocates, especially those concerned with wind power, argued that the 20,000-megawatt figure was too low and that that proposed development focus areas gave them too little usable space. Wind and solar industry advocates wrote that a larger proportion of installations could go on BLM land rather than private property. 

Groups concerned with historic preservation, recreation and tourism objected similarly to disruption of existing landscapes. There were protests from tribal governments, notably the Quechan and Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla. There were objections to visual impacts on historic and tourism destinations, and to possible limits on hiking and off-road vehicle recreation.

Imperial Valley business, farm and local government commenters worried about effects on farmland and the Salton Sea. The Desert Sun reported Imperial County officials feared the DRECP's mitigation program could compete financially with the Imperial Irrigation District's existing Salton Sea Restoration and Renewable Energy Initiative, a plan to fund Salton Sea remediation with proceeds from geothermal energy projects. Douglas, in response, said she had "followed pretty closely some of the interest in using revenue" from geothermal projects on mitigation work, and the plan drafters would work with the county to resolve the matter.

Los Angeles County is by far the most coordinated with the DRECP process. Its freshly updated General Plan for unincorporated county land designates expanded Significant Ecological Areas (SEAs) for conservation and Economic Opportunity Areas to concentrate development. County officials said the DRECP's drafters have agreed to keep their Development Focus Areas out of both types of zones, and that the final DRECP plan would reflect the recently finalized new boundaries.

Los Angeles County was among recipients of renewable energy planning grants under AB X1 13, passed in 2011. Other recipients in the DRECP area were Imperial, Inyo, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties, all of which have therefore worked on planning updates for renewable energy.

Small business and farming groups objected to the DRECP's preference for placing installations on private rather than public land. In inland counties where much of the land is public, county officials protested the potential loss of tax revenue, either through direct construction of renewable energy projects or through mitigation measures creating habitat easements. Several comments bristled defensively about the primacy of local land use authority. 

The Wilderness Society's comment observed that in passing last year's SB 871 solar project tax exemption, the Legislature created a "huge disincentive for counties to be willing to site projects on suitable private lands."

A Step Back Via Phasing

In what was widely reported as a concession to pressure, the REAT agencies announced plans March 10 to separate the DRECP's three regulatory parts, handling them one by one in a "phased approach" that starts with the less controversial Land Use Plan Amendment (LUPA) affecting lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

That will leave the agencies more time to negotiate over the latter two components of the plan, which more directly affect private property and local government authority. Those are the General Conservation Plan (GCP), drafted for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approval and intended to govern federal "incidental take" permits on damage to species in non-federal lands; and the Natural Community Conservation Plan (NCCP), prepared for approval by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to apply to the whole project area.

The phasing approach won't solve everything: the Sierra Club responded to the announcement by warning that "more federal public lands could be developed for renewable energy, at least in the short term." Phasing does not directly address the expressions of confusion about function, authority and geographic detail that appear in many comments -- including comments from the California Desert Renewable Energy Working Group, a roundtable of environmental and energy industry players. 

Why 20,000 Megawatts?

All of the proposed DRECP scenarios call for the same volume of new renewable generation capacity: an additional 20,000 megawatts by 2040. The EPA, Sierra Club and Basin & Range Watch were only a few of many commenters making that argument. A Sierra Club analysis (see p. 54 ff) argued that 10,000 to 15,000 megawatts would be a sufficient goal and suggested the DRECP numbers were incorrectly slanted in favor of utility-scale renewable energy installations rather than other means of carbon reduction. A MoveOn petition, reporting more than 1,400 signatures, was among comments calling on the DRECP agencies to give rooftop solar generation more of a chance in calculating demand for power.

By the DRECP agencies' own account, the 20,000 figure is rounded up from estimates that are themselves uncertain. Douglas said it isn't a forecast, only "a planning framework for some reasonable amount of renewable energy that may happen." In fact she said the planning group chose to project numbers for 2040, not 2050, because scenarios for meeting the EO S-3-05 goal call for a huge further increase in electric vehicle use that would double total demand for electricity from 2040 to 2050. And the more distant the projection, "the less comfortable we are."

But Douglas argued it was less risky to over-plan than to under-plan, saying the plan itself didn't create procurement or transmission line approvals, and "We could sit here and say there are potential future scenarios where none of this is needed, or we could do the planning work today in case it is needed."

The calculations underlying DRECP energy demand assumptions were downplayed in the draft EIR/EIS, appearing not in the executive summary but in the Appendix F3 "acreage calculator" section. Analyst David Vidaver of the Energy Commission's Energy Assessments Division, who led the work on the calculations, pointed out the main demand figures used for the DRECP land use proposals on Page 21 in the third column of a table displaying four possible sets of assumptions. It's the one captioned "15,000 MW CSDG Scenario."

That scenario calls for 49,233 megawatts of "zero-carbon" energy generation statewide by 2040, of which 18,327 would come from utilities' energy installations in the DRECP's seven-county desert area. (The 20,000 figure is rounded up from there.) The "15,000 MW CSDG" is an assumption more generous to rooftop solar than some scenarios: it presumes that "customer-side distributed generation" -- likely to be rooftop solar-- will generate a further 15,000 megawatts by 2040 statewide.

Meanwhile, Energy Commission spokeswoman Laurie Sinsley called attention to a comment from the California Wind Energy Association that argued the 20,000-megawatt estimate was arbitrarily low, especially its wind energy component. It cited to higher figures in studies cited by the Air Resources Board and in a recent study by Energy and Environmental Economics, Inc. (E3). Vidaver said the E3 study called for more "standalone" wind and solar facilities although it started from assumptions similar in the DRECP calculations.