Environment & Science

Public opposition forces retooling for California desert renewable energy plan

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan spans seven California counties and aims to balance the protection of desert ecosystems with the development of renewable energy projects.
The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan spans seven California counties and aims to balance the protection of desert ecosystems with the development of renewable energy projects.
KPCC Data Desk | Sources: California Energy Commission, USGS

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A barrage of criticism has forced federal and state officials to redirect the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a multiyear effort to balance big renewable energy projects with protections for California wildlands and their inhabitants.

Six years ago the plan was conceived as a roadmap, meant to guide development for growing interest in large-scale solar and wind projects on more than 22 million acres of lands throughout the lower half of the state, including the Mojave and Colorado deserts. But on Tuesday, officials from the California Energy Commission, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced they will break the plan into pieces, focusing on federal land first, while leaving contentious decisions about more than half of the rest of the land, overwhelmingly private, for later.

In doing so, state energy commissioner Karen Douglas acknowledged a vocally negative response to the final draft of the plan, released last September. Solar developers and environmental groups displayed rare unity when they released a joint letter to the commission earlier this year, asking for more time to comment on a plan they called contradictory and overly complex. Even the federal Environmental Protection Agency offered criticisms.

“Based on the comments we have received we have decided to use a phased approach to moving forward with the plan,” said Douglas.

State agencies will take more time to create guidelines for permitting renewables on private lands, enabling more consultation with developers and counties responsible for zoning and planning.

San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial, Inyo, and Kern county officials have worried that the plan could deter other kinds of economic development on local private lands. In a comment letter, Riverside County’s director of land management, Juan Perez, expressed concern that Riverside might “disproportionally bear the burden” of either active energy development or conservation.

“The counties are the lead permitting authority for projects on private land,” Douglas says, “and that's one of the reasons why it's so important to ensure that we have the best possible alignment with counties on this plan.” At least one county, San Bernardino, applauded the newly announced phase approach.

Some environmental interest groups remain skeptical that delaying conservation guidelines will mean a rollback in protection for sensitive lands that are home to endangered and threatened animals and plants.

The National Parks Conservation Association’s David Lamfrom says the public lands portion of the plan needs attention, but he adds that “it is up to the Department of the Interior to honor the time and taxpayer investment in this plan by making decisions that don't preclude conservation planning on private lands.”

By decoupling the public lands planning process from guidelines affecting private lands, conservation advocates say rulemakers lose the ability to incentivize new projects towards disturbed, private lands near transmission lines.

“The risk is that if you’re not looking across the whole landscape you’re actually still having greater impacts from your development than you need to, because the disturbed lands, the places that would have the least impact for species are on private lands.”

But The Wilderness Society’s Dan Smuts applauded Tuesday’s decision. Smuts says he’s "not terribly uncomfortable” with the newly phased desert plan because he believes California remains committed to reducing the state’s carbon impact through a variety of energy strategies, including rooftop solar, energy efficiency, and demand management.

“We welcome efforts by state and federal agencies to create a realistic and sustainable path forward for finalizing their planning efforts,” he says.

Douglas and Jim Kenna, director of the federal Bureau of Land Management in California, stressed that federal and state agencies would continue to cooperate on the unprecedented effort.

“We will continue our interagency coordination to achieve the goals of the [desert renewable plan],” Kenna said.

Kenna contends that the plan won’t increase what’s already been contemplated over the last six years – and that includes some development of public lands. “We will be working from the same range of alternatives that was presented in the draft environmental impact statement,” he says.

It’s no longer clear how fast the components parts of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan will be resolved. Officials aren’t saying when the rules could be completed.

This story has been updated.