Southern California environment news and trends

Interior Department shrinks some solar energy zones in Inland Empire; will it be enough?

Molly Peterson/KPCC

Joshua Tree National Park, October 9, 2011. The park's border is now further away from the edge of proposed federal solar energy zones under the final tweak of a massive programmatic environmental impact report.

Yesterday the Interior Department released its final proposed maps for "solar energy zones." As we reported last year, these zones are for projects that come NEXT: not the "fast-track" solar projects that are already underway in California, Nevada and other states. 

Nearly a year after the Interior Department started making these zones in which solar could speed ahead, some of the zones are shrunken or elminated under the final plan on which the public will comment. Interior officials say the zones were "found to have resource conflicts and/or development constraints."

In the Inland Empire, eastern Riverside county bears the brunt of the scrutiny. And in San Bernardino, that means the Pisgah Crater and Iron Mountain. Pisgah is about 37 square miles of land; Iron Mountain is a patch 166 square miles big. According to the Press-Enterprise

The 148,000-acre zone proposed for eastern Riverside County was scaled back. Originally, it was proposed to cover 203,000 acres running from the Joshua Tree National Park to an area east and north of Blythe, mostly north of Interstate 10 in the Chuckwalla Valley area. Under the new proposal, the solar zone does not abut the park’s border, according to maps released Thursday.

From the start, the general ideer hs been to develop a framework for how to look at a whole bunch of land together. In theory, that would help out the cause of renewable energy companies and the utilities mandated to add renewabes to their portfolios; at the same time, looking at the ecological value of the desert on a larger scale is the kind of thing conservationists have pushed for. 

Except the conervationists have stayed skeptical. Groups including California-based Solar Done Right have criticized the development of the solar prgrammatic environmental impact statement. Solar Done Right and other advocates maintain that they love the desert, but that they aren't NIMBY types about it; instead, they're all for solar in their own actual backyards, in cities and urban areas.

Meanwhile, the early-track projects have been continuing apace. Brightsource, at Ivanpah, is doing pretty much what it said it would do: building large-scale parabolic solar, creating at peak over a thousand construction jobs. 

So is the shrunken footprint shrunken enough for desert rats and desert conservationists? My gut says no, but we'll have to see. Two public meetings in California will seek comment about the final plan. One's El Centro on December 7 and another's in Palm Desert on December 8. 

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