A Landmark Plan for Renewable Energy Development in the California Desert

Today, when the Department of Interior and the California Department of Natural Resources released a draft of the long-awaited Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), the agencies set the stage for a first-of-its-kind project — in more ways than one. Not only does the DRECP have the potential to serve as a blueprint for conservation and clean energy development in the California desert, it could become a model for how federal, state, and local agencies can work together … and how those collaborations are better overall for everyone involved.

‘Smart from the Start’ Planning

The DRECP is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management, the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to plan for conservation and renewable energy development across 22 million acres of private and public lands. And it’s the result of a public process that NRDC, fellow conservation groups, renewable energy companies and many other stakeholders have been engaged in for more than four years.

But what people might not know is that the framework for the DRECP was developed with a number of “smart from the start” planning hallmarks that NRDC has advocated for years now, including: 

  • Landscape-level planning that identifies areas that should not be developed
  • Guiding development to low-conflict areas
  • Strategic, regional mitigation to offset impacts from energy development

NRDC has long believed that land management and permitting agencies should guide renewable energy development to areas with low environmental and wildlife risk, high energy potential, and close proximity to necessary infrastructure like transmission. Planning efforts like the DRECP, if designed and implemented correctly, can help achieve these goals.

Just as important, “smart from the start” planning must also identify areas that should be set aside because they are too ecologically valuable to be developed.  And the planning process must also include mitigation measures that will result in the lasting protection and conservation of wildlife and sensitive areas.

Desert Conservation Opportunities

The DRECP presents a unique opportunity to build a strategic conservation reserve with lasting and meaningful protections for some of the desert’s most imperiled species and special landscapes. It also offers a chance to help protect important wildlife corridors that will be critical in the face of climate change. As we review the DRECP we will be looking for strong, science-based strategies for realizing these important conservation opportunities.

Fighting Climate Change

As I get ready to review the draft document, it’s my hope that the DRECP will be the roadmap we need to preserve the desert’s special places and species and provide a balanced approach to large scale renewable energy development — wind, solar, and geothermal on both private and public lands.  As we move forward with pursuing our climate goals as aggressively as we can, it’s important to use all the tools at our disposal — the DRECP is one piece of a comprehensive plan to fight climate change that includes energy efficiency, conservation, distributed generation, and modernizing our electric grid to handle more renewables from both sides of the meter.

What Happens Next?

It is critical that the upcoming comment period for the DRECP include a robust, open, and transparent public process for all stakeholders so that the final plan reflects the values and needs of diverse constituencies.  We understand that once the draft plan is released, 11 workshops will be held to solicit feedback. People will also be able to submit written comments for 90 days. More information on future workshops and how to submit written comments will be posted on the official DRECP website.

Given that the draft EIS is expected to total as many as 12,000 pages, it will take some time to closely review the plan and all its components. NRDC will work with our partners to provide the most detailed and thoughtful comments we can on this landmark document, and we are hopeful that draft plan will point us in the right direction for developing the lasting framework that we need for balancing our clean energy and natural resource protection goals in the desert. 

This article was originally published on NRDC and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Mojave desert via Shutterstock

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Helen O'Shea is the Director of NRDC’s Western Renewable Energy Project. She is part of a multi-faceted Renewable Energy team working to shape an environmentally responsible program for renewable generation and transmission in the West. Prior to working at NRDC, Helen worked for The Trust for Public Land for eight years doing land acquisition and park development in Santa Barbara County and Los Angeles. She has worked in land conservation and environmental policy in the Bay Area for 15 years. Helen holds a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communications from Washington and Lee University and a Master’s in City and Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

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