BLM’s Calif. plan hurts climate goals — wind, solar groups

By Anne C. Mulkern | 09/15/2016 01:11 PM EDT

The Obama administration’s plan for managing renewable energy development in California’s desert clashes with the state’s aggressive goals for limiting climate change, wind and solar groups warned yesterday.

The Obama administration’s plan for managing renewable energy development in California’s desert clashes with the state’s aggressive goals for limiting climate change, wind and solar groups warned yesterday.

The organizations jointly criticized the plan, saying it would "significantly and permanently limit solar and wind energy development" on federal property.

In addition to hurting existing state and federal environmental goals, it likely hinders "any future, more ambitious goals that could engender further growth of the clean energy economy," said the American Council on Renewable Energy, California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA), California & Nevada State Association of Electrical Workers, Large-Scale Solar Association (LSA) and Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).


"It’s a missed opportunity of epic proportions," said Shannon Eddy, executive director of LSA. "We spent eight years working on a plan that we started out being excited about. This should not be the end result." The flaws, she said, include "insufficient land with insufficient ability to meet what will be increasing renewable goals, increasing climate targets."

She added, "The solar industry is alarmed. We do not take this lightly. In almost every other case, this administration has been a shining star when it comes to renewable energy. This one seriously missed the mark."

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell yesterday in Palm Springs, Calif., announced that her department has issued a record of decision (ROD) approving the blueprint along with three land-use plan amendments covering 10.8 million federal acres. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), outlined in a final environmental impact statement last year, establishes 388,000 acres of "development focus areas" deemed suitable for commercial-scale renewables projects. It also identifies millions of areas that will be protected or conserved (E&ENews PM, Sept. 14).

It takes place as California aims for the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy target. S.B. 350, passed last year, requires the biggest utilities to make half of their power from renewable sources by 2030. Separately, S.B. 32, signed into law last week, mandates that by 2030, the state cut its carbon emissions to 40 percent below 1990 emissions levels.

Nancy Rader, executive director at CalWEA, said that California will need to add 1,600 megawatts of wind and solar each year, or roughly 16 new utility-scale efforts annually, through 2030 in order to reach those climate goals. Wind has 6,000 MW operating in California right now, and more than "95 percent of that is on private land. Less than 5 percent is on BLM land," she said.

"We have tapped out California’s main wind resources on private land," Rader said. The DRECP plans for just 2,000 MW more of wind, she said, and based on the locations available, "our estimate is we’ll get at best 1,000 MW."

The ROD amends the California Desert Conservation Area and the Bakersfield and Bishop resource management plans to establish the development focus areas within the 388,000 acres, equivalent to 600 square miles. BLM will encourage utility-scale solar, wind and geothermal power projects in these designated areas. The blueprint lasts through 2040. BLM estimates that development within the focus areas could produce as much as 27,000 MW using 2016 technology, according to the ROD.

Dana Wilson, a BLM spokeswoman, said the agency worked on the plan for eight years and that "it’s a difficult thing as land managers to satisfy all sides and give every interest everything they want in the plan."

"We really feel this plan strikes the right balance," she said, of allowing renewable energy "while still protecting a lot of really important resources in the desert."

‘Premier lands’ for solar

California Energy Commissioner Karen Douglas also defended the plan.

"The DRECP will be a tremendous help to the state in meeting California’s climate and renewable energy goals," Douglas said in an email. "By designating more than 600 square miles of renewable energy areas, BLM is providing a clear pathway for projects on public lands, while giving the state much greater certainty about where those projects could be located."

BLM has planned for more than 8,000 MW of renewable energy on public lands, Douglas said, "which would represent a build-out of about 12 percent of the land area" in the DRECP’s designated spots.

"If needed, much more renewable energy capacity could be sited within those areas," Douglas said. "In addition, renewable energy generation on private land and projects outside of the desert region will contribute to meeting California’s energy goals, as well as energy efficiency and distributed generation projects."

Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs at SEIA, said that the California desert is the best spot for solar.

"These lands are not just the best solar lands in the U.S.; they’re probably some of the most premier lands in the world," he said. There’s year-round sunshine, low precipitation and fairly flat surfaces, as well as nearby transmission lines and major metropolitan areas including Los Angeles, he said.

"With all those factors, we were hoping there would be more lands be made available for solar and wind," Mansour said. While the Obama administration has supported solar, the DRECP "really fails to balance conservation needs with the needs of solar and renewable energy in general. The amount of lands made available for renewable energy development are grossly insufficient."

He added that planning for 8,000 MW is "a very unambitious goal."

"Our concern in general is California has this current goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030," he said, but the state could want more clean power in the future, and the DRECP rules are "going to last years."

Streamlined permitting

The DRECP will save developers time by giving them places with the best shot of getting a plan approved, BLM’s Wilson said. The agency has completed research on each area’s cultural resources and threatened or endangered species. It has done the consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service that’s required when there are plants or animals threatened under federal or state laws, she said.

"We’ve already addressed all of those issues," Wilson said. That’s intended "to clear the way for all that up front so we don’t have to do it project by project. … It doesn’t mean we will blanket-approve everything, but at least a lot of the leg work’s been done already."

That represents a kind of streamlined permitting, Wilson said. She added that BLM "looked for areas where there was low conflict, where there was high potential for solar or wind, where there already was disturbance," and that were close to transmission lines.

BLM has already received seven applications to put solar projects in the newly designated areas, Wilson said.

"Based on what we’re seeing already, these are the areas that have the highest interest to developers," she said.

The renewable group representatives disagreed that there would be significant streamlining of project approvals. Developments still must go through full National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act reviews, Mansour said.

BLM also had added 350 permitting requirements called Conservation Management Actions. For example, all cables between solar pylons and power lines to the transmission lines must be buried underground. That makes it much more expensive, he said.

"There’s really no streamlining of the environmental clearance process," Mansour said. "That was supposed to be the carrot. … Right now, we see a lot more sticks aimed at us versus carrots."

Green groups support

Wilson noted that environmental groups and renewable power organizations have come up with different numbers for how many projects could be built in the allowed land. Green groups mostly supported the plan.

"The DRECP provides a responsible path for future development while permanently protecting the most important places as California Desert Conservation Lands," said Danielle Murray, senior director at the Conservation Lands Foundation.

The Natural Resources Defense Council in a blog post said that California’s S.B. 350 and S.B. 32, combined with the federal Clean Power Plan, "are expected to drive a new round of utility scale renewable energy development across the west."

"So having plans in place to direct that development towards low conflict areas is particularly critical right now," the NRDC blog said. "The BLM component of the DRECP provides the cornerstone public lands element, and the next step is for the BLM and state agencies to work closely with the desert counties on Phase II of the DRECP to plan for renewable energy and conservation on private lands as well."

Rader with CalWEA said there are facts about wind and solar developments that plan supporters might not understand. Even within the designated areas, there are limitations on locating near environmentally sensitive areas, and conflicts with military flight paths. So there’s much less space available than the 388,000 acres, she said.

"It’s not easy to build a wind or solar project," Rader said. "You don’t just build them anywhere." She added that wind needs a lot of land, and "these areas are too small."

In terms of building more wind and solar projects on private land, that option isn’t as feasible as it sounds, the renewable group representatives said.

The DRECP initially was going to look at both federal land and private property together, but that eventually was split into phase one — looking at federal property — and phase two — looking at private land. California through the state Energy Commission gave five counties — Los Angeles, Riverside, Inyo, Imperial and San Bernardino — money to look at renewable development as they updated their general plans.

But the DRECP took so long that most of those counties have finished or are near finishing their general plans. And several have limited renewable projects, the groups said.

LA has restricted solar thermal and, for solar photovoltaic projects, required that transmission lines go underground, which makes the efforts far more costly, advocates said. It’s also blocking wind, they said.

"The LA Board of Supervisors has initiated a blanket prohibition against wind energy," Rader said. The area west of Palmdale, which would be an ideal wind area, she said, is "off-limits, and BLM knows that darn well, and yet they keep pointing to phase two."