Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Gold rush a-comin' with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan

Stakeholders - I love that word, I always think of vampires - stakeholders for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan are wrapping up a meeting today in Ontario. It's an interesting time to check in on how this plan - which is supposed to guide conservation efforts as big solar and wind projects get sited - is coming along. Especially since I haven't checked in on it in about 5 months

The demand for large-scale desert-land energy projects is a constant and beating one now - most recently, according to the Desert Sun, which finds a spike in interest going back 5 years:

Interest in solar development on federal land in the Southern California desert jumped from 20 applications in 2006 to about 150 the following year, said Greg Miller, BLM renewable energy program manager for the California Desert District.

We had what we called a land rush,” he said.

BLM had previously approved use of federal desert lands for things such as power line corridors — never anything of the size of solar energy projects, Miller said. 

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation plan is supposed to guide development on those lands, and it's supposed to be binding - once it's done. It just doesn't exist yet. (Next year, they say.)

But environmental groups and state agencies who I've talked to say it offers hope: they always point to the handily named DRECP as the way the State of California, working with scientists, federal agencies, and environmental groups, will protect the Colorado and Mojave desert ecosystems. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered its creation, and its goal: to create a policy direction for moving onto desert lands "that would, when complete, provide binding, long-term endangered species permit assurances and facilitate renewable energy project review and approval processes."

Back in December, I talked to CEC's Karen Douglas about the DRECP, in a story about the fast tracking of some large scale solar projects. Those projects weren't subject to the still developing conservation rules the group is considering - but Douglas sounded an optimistic note as she talked to me about what the DRECP could do. 

The California Energy Commission's Karen Douglas says the process of siting solar in the desert so far hasn't been perfect. "I think it was a tremendous opportunity for the state to have the recovery act provide incentive for renewable energy, and to have projects that were in the permitting process that were ready to go and to be able to evaluate those projects."

Douglas says it's also been a tremendous learning experience, most significantly in terms of where the projects can go. "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."

Thing is, the DRECP remains mindbogglingly complicated - even 2 1/2 years after its inception. Here's a PowerPoint presentation of a key issues progress report - which basically is meant to convey what's happened lately. As a sample, here's a screenshot grab of some of the maddening language they use. I *think* it's in English; it's supposed to be a list of stuff they've done to get more independent scientists in on oversight:

What IS in the current draft of the conservation plan isn't too illuminating. "Specific conservation measures have not been identified for the Framework Conservation Strategy Report because additional analysis is necessary to develop the specifics of the biological objectives," the draft chapter on Conservation Strategy says. "Many of the conservation actions will be site and impact-specific (e.g, invasive species controls along access roads, wildlife-friendly fencing around facilities)." That makes it sound like the framework will remain a skeleton, right? But we won't know until next year. Probably. 

For some conservationists, what they see in the DRECP is simply an interest in speeding up projects. Here's another slide from that same PowerPoint. Under current rules, it would take 4 blue boxes to get to project construction. With a better'll be some circumstances. (I can count! 3 boxes.) In others, those 4 blue boxes are just stacked on top of each other. And nowhere in the narrative do I see a clear statement of what they're trying to preserve as they move faster. How will that help conservation efforts? Uh, I think, again, we won't know until next year. Probably. 

What I can tell: so far, we've got an increasingly complicated plan to plan how to plan. It's not done yet. Projects are still moving forward. You follow? No. Me neither. 

Jim Andre, from UC Riverside's Granite Mountains Desert Research Center in San Bernardino county, says he believes the intentions of DRECP participants are mostly good. But, he says, using some of the lands federal and state officials have already approved leapfrogs the planning process, and in so doing makes the mistake the planning process is supposed to prevent.

"Pristine. They're pristine," Andre told me. "The California deserts are one of the last intact ecosystems left." Using pristine lands for energy projects, Andre says, is a "very ridiculous" thing to do. The stakes are high, he argues. 

Andre's a botanist. I talked to him about the scientific underpinnings of the DRECP: he was quick to say that the folks on the advisory panel are working hard, and he allowed as how the process is turning up some good data, especially for California's National Diversity Database Records and recording species connectivity information. But it's not complete: Andre says it would be hard to do a full assessment based on what they're finding right now, and he says there's no comparative data to look at sites outside the lands they're looking at. 

"There's good information being compiled here," Andre told me, "though how it's interpreted and analyzed is a huge question. DRECP is only a tool that would be valuable if we got to a point where we're actually going to our public lands to solve these energy issues." 

We don't seem to even know what exactly are our energy issues yet - other than, you know, wanting some. State energy regulators are also planning goals for how much large-scale energy we'll even need 10-40 years from now. So, to review: the conservation plan's a moving target. The energy targers are a moving target. The environmental processes are moving targets. Not to mention the private companies gathering financing and momentum to get their projects set up on private and public land - moving targets, all.

If this were a dance club, it would be hopping. If this were Vegas, it would be a pool in July. If it were a particle collider, particles would be colliding. But it's supposed to be a well formed strategic plan for developing renewable energy and preventing habitat loss by conserving good land.

And how's this faster again?