Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Solar gets a go on federal public land in California [UPDATED]

Jazzfest in New Orleans was where I first really became acquainted with the phenomenon of playing the star on stage. The drummer would tap his sticks, the backing band would start, and eventually Ray Charles or Allen Toussaint would amble into position...and start to play.

Solar developers started the drumbeat about 5 years ago to get projects going on public lands in the West, and they've finally played Allen Toussaint on stage. Except I'll end the metaphor here, otherwise Allen Toussaint becomes a "record of decision" - a document signed by the Secretary of Interior permitting two companies using two different solar technologies to construct projects on public lands.

It's a big deal because renewable energy projects have been constipated in the digestive system of the government for years. This is the first time solar projects like these have been permitted on public land.

One project in the Lucerne Valley belongs to Chevron, whose Energy Solutions division will build solar PV panels on 422 of the nearly 6 million acres the Bureau of Land Management oversees in San Bernardino County. The project will have a "green screen" - both to camouflage its appearance and to keep dust down. The 45 megawatt project will also create 48 jobs, according to Chevron and BLM.

The other project in the Imperial Valley belongs to Tessera. the Arizona based company will construct a solar dish array on 6360 of the 1.2 million acres the Bureau of Land Management oversees in Imperial County. Tessera and BLM anticipate the 709 megawatt project will generate around 900 new jobs.

So far it sounds like everyone's thrilled about it.

SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR KEN SALAZAR: "These projects are milestones in our focused effort to rapidly and responsibly capture renewable energy resources on public lands. These projects advance the President’s agenda for stimulating investment in cutting-edge technology, creating jobs for American workers, and promoting clean energy for American homes, businesses and industry.”

DEFENDERS OF WILDLIFE'S JIM LYON: “The ‘fast-track’ process has been a learning experience for all of us, and the lessons we’ve learned here will ultimately lead to better planning, improved siting, and faster turnaround for renewable energy projects in the future. To reduce its impact on wildlife and the environment, the Lucerne Solar Project was located on lands of lower habitat quality and near already degraded areas. And the Imperial Valley Solar Project will be developed in phases to lessen its impacts on wildlife, air and water resources. These projects illustrate how renewable energy developers can build our clean energy future in smart and environmentally-responsible ways.

NATURAL RESOURCES DEFENSE COUNCIL'S JOHANNA WALD: “Chevron’s Lucerne Valley solar project is a great example of a project that’s smart from the start. The project fits the bill because, as a result of careful planning up front, its site has high solar potential, is close to existing roads and transmission, and avoids sensitive wildlife areas and other vital natural resources.
    Although the Tessera Solar project site in Imperial Valley met some of NRDC’s criteria, it initially posed resource and technology issues. Today, it serves as an example of what can be accomplished when parties are committed to finding solutions to such issues. During the federal and state reviews Tessera Solar moved the project out of sensitive desert washes, scaling it back to 709-megawatts, to reduce important impacts. Tessera Solar then sat down with NRDC and our conservation partners and agreed to develop the project in two distinct stages and other measures, all of which went above and beyond the requirements imposed by state and federal regulators."

[UPDATED, 4:06 P.M. - including one reaction I missed from this morning]

THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY'S ALICE BOND: "Few of the pilot projects on BLM’s ‘fast track’ are in places The Wilderness Society would have picked, but we have worked hard with the companies, BLM and other agencies and our partners to minimize significant impacts to the land and wildlife while permitting clean energy production that will pay dividends for decades to come...We have been concerned from the start that a significant number of projects could be permitted without the benefit of comprehensive guidance, which could lead to unnecessary delays in the build-out of projects as well as poorly sited projects that could create an erosion of public support for renewable energy development on public lands.  Local citizens and conservationists shouldn’t be left holding the bag when poorly sited or planned projects face challenges.  In particular, The Wilderness Society will continue to push for national siting standards to ensure that in the future projects are done right from the beginning or what we like to refer to as smart from the start."

We'll have more on these projects going forward.