California’s Conservation Proposal Kneecaps Utility-scale Solar

Six years in the making, state and federal agencies released five options with a “Preferred Alternative” draft for the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP), potentially kneecapping development in the best solar region in the U.S. by cutting off previous access to public lands and reducing eligible acreage by two thirds.

The amount of clean energy allowed on 22 million acres of California desert will be finalized in 2016 after addressing public comments at 10 public meetings until November 13th. The final version then becomes law for a quarter century.

The detailed options were hammered out between two state and two federal agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the California Energy Commission (CEC), and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The idea was to resolve conflicts over accommodating enough clean energy to meet California’s climate goals as well as to create new conservation and recreation areas on California desert land. The goal was to reduce both interagency and local obstacles that have impeded desert clean energy projects by siting near transmission, on disturbed private land, while also preserving sensitive habitat. 

Under the drafters’ Preferred Alternative only 20 percent of acreage would be on public lands, reversing the Obama Administration’s original plan to expand renewable energy on BLM land.


Fatal Weakness: “The Invisible Hand” 

The preferred proposal would allow renewables on 2 million acres in patches throughout the 22 million-acre region, in theory leaving space for up to 20 GW of renewables to be developed if needed by 2040. However, 80 percent must be on privately owned land. There is no guarantee that every land owner would rent or keep rates reasonable, so meeting climate goals relies on “the invisible hand” of the market. 

Under the No Action Alternative option, there had been 6 million acres available — most on public land. DRECP Alternative 2, the “Geographically Balanced/Transmission Aligned Alternative”  would allow slightly more development on public land at 33 percent, and a total 2.5 million acres. But Alternative 1 would allow only 14 percent on public land, and limit renewables to 1 million acres. (The acreage is dotted in clumps throughout the bottom quarter of the state.) 

Pink indicates former BLM land available under the DRECP No Action Alternative.

CALWEA states that most potential acreage under the Preferred Alternative doesn’t turn out to be actually available. (Neither the wind industry nor solar industry DRECP options made it to the final alternatives.) And DRECP also rolls back previous flexibility over variance lands. 

“Even within the 2 million acres, the DRECP avoidance and mitigation standards that projects would be subjected to — such as quarter mile ephemeral stream setbacks — would make solar development almost impossible,” said utility-scale PV permitting attorney Andrew Bell of Marten Law.

“Unlike under previous BLM rules, there is no mechanism for using site-specific data to correct the landscape-scale mapping assumptions of the plan, which necessarily will be under-inclusive in some areas and over-inclusive in others,” added Bell. 

Particularly hard hit by the new limits is Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), which uses the sun to run steam-driven turbines. CSP is only suited to utility-scale siting in desert regions, and California’s deserts have some of the best potential on earth.

Governor Brown also cautioned: “Once the plan is in place, it will be difficult to add more development if the amount of renewable energy needed to stave off the worst impacts of climate change is underestimated.”

Most Difficult Permitting in the World

Attempting to mine the sun or wind in California is not for the faint of heart. Clean energy permitting in California was already felling more projects than those that made it through. Filings with one of these agencies alone can amount to up to 500-page legal documents taking five years or more to process. By contrast, those that want to drill California’s BLM lands for oil or gas just fill out a two page form.

In 2010 the BLM gave nine permits for renewables and 1,308 for oil and gas. 

Only oil and gas on public land is seen as a “resource,” yet California must meet climate goals. Permitting rules were already stacked against clean energy due to these conflicting charters by the agencies. BrightSource Energy singled out the CEC for praise.

“I give credit to the agencies for trying to bring some balance in this process, I really do,” said BrightSource Energy SVP of government affairs Joe Desmond, a former CEC Chair himself. 

Faulty Information Influencing Decision

The DRECP public meetings follow widely disseminated and faulty information establishing the truthiness that CSP is “frying 28,000 birds” at America’s first commercial-scale power tower CSP plant in America. 

“There’s no question that the issue has been, in some corners, perhaps exaggerated or mischaracterized,” said Desmond. “Birds don’t vaporize. The data showed us that the area of concern associated with solar flux only occurs near the tower, which helps us focus avian deterrent efforts for maximum effect.”

(The actual numbers of singed birds were actually in the hundreds, and are now reduced with bird deterrents.)

“But people will be going to these meetings in California thinking it’s 28,000,” said Tex Wilkins, who, as a veteran of the Department of Energy solar program experienced public opposition that wound up greatly limiting the BLM and DOE solar PEIS regions. 

“There needs to be somebody there that can say wait a minute; the actual number will be close to several hundred. Having correct information at these meetings would tend to maybe decrease some of the complaints about the technologies based on faulty information,” said Wilkins.

“It’s important to keep these issues in perspective. The primary risks to birds certainly aren’t solar projects,” said SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith. “This year in Southern California almost every raptor nest failed because of drought. An Audubon study found that more than half of the bird population in North America is at risk of extinction due to climate change.”

Other states, with less difficult permitting, already host the first two CSP projects to include storage and replace fossil energy. In Arizona, Abengoa’s Solana CSP project now ships power on demand at night and before sunrise, reducing coal use by APS. In Nevada, SolarReserve’s Crescent Dunes CSP project is contracted to supply Las Vegas till midnight with 500,000 megawatt-hours annually — providing solar after dark.

”With storage, we can operate at a 90 to 95 percent capacity factor during the period that NV Energy wants us to operate,” said Smith.

You can comment on DRECP until January 9th.

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Susan Kraemer reports on renewable energy for CSP Today, Wind Energy Update, PV Insider and Renewable Energy World, and has written about renewables for Cleantechnica, Green Prophet and other sites.

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