EPA, industry assail development plan for vast swath of Calif. desert

By Scott Streater | 02/27/2015 12:48 PM EST

The Bureau of Land Management has received at least 12,000 public comments on a sweeping renewable energy development plan for millions of acres of Southern California desert, including notable critiques from the renewable industry and U.S. EPA.

The Bureau of Land Management has received at least 12,000 public comments on a sweeping renewable energy development plan for millions of acres of Southern California desert, including notable critiques from the renewable industry and U.S. EPA.

The public comment period ended this week for the multi-volume, 8,000-page draft Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) designed to guide development across 22.5 million acres of public and private lands in the Mojave and Colorado deserts.

The draft plan unveiled last fall by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calls for establishing 2 million acres of "development focus areas" within the planning area where utility-scale renewables development or transmission line projects would be deemed suitable.


The plan would also establish conservation and recreation designations across an additional 8.5 million acres of federal land where BLM wouldn’t accept applications, except for some geothermal activity in the recreation areas as long as there is no surface occupancy (E&ENews PM, Sept. 23, 2014).

The plan’s goal evaluated in a draft environmental impact statement/environmental impact report (EIS/EIR) is to guide renewables development over the next three decades to suitable spots where solar, wind and geothermal resources are plentiful but natural resource values are low. The goal remains to issue a final plan by the end of the year, said Dana Wilson, a BLM spokeswoman in Sacramento, Calif.

But according to public comments on the draft plan — developed by BLM, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Energy Commission, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife — it needs a lot of work.

While many comments submitted over the last four months commend the Obama administration’s efforts to properly site renewables projects, they also raise serious concerns about impacts to air quality, sensitive wildlife habitat and migratory birds.

Some of the most pointed criticisms come from EPA, which gave the draft EIS/EIR a low rating, citing "concerns regarding a range of issues" that include potential air quality impacts due to fugitive dust emissions creating particulate pollution, wrote Kathleen Martyn Goforth, Environmental Review Office manager for EPA Region 9 in San Francisco.

Goforth, in a brief summary of the agency’s concerns that accompanied the formal comments, raised doubts about "the ability of the BLM and its federal and state partners to sufficiently monitor and address the impacts that could result from the operation and maintenance of renewable energy facilities" across 22.5 million acres. And she encouraged the agencies "to identify disturbed sites" that are suitable for commercial-scale renewable energy development, instead of undeveloped sites.

Overall, EPA gave the draft EIS/EIR document an EC-2 rating, which stands for "environmental concerns — insufficient information."

In its formal comments, EPA also questioned estimates in the draft plan that the DRECP planning area could support projects capable of producing 20,000 megawatts of electricity, noting that the "sharp decline in the cost of rooftop solar-powered electricity" may lessen the need for commercial-scale development. The agency also noted that the federal production tax credit for solar projects is set to drop significantly in 2017, lessening a major financial incentive for the industry.

"For this reason, the financial viability of future utility-scale renewable energy projects in the Plan Area is far from certain," EPA writes.

But the agency is most concerned about air pollution from desert soils disturbed during construction and operation of renewable energy power plants. The disturbed soils would easily be kicked up and dispersed into the air by the wind, and the agency requested BLM and the CEC include an air quality analysis in the final plan "to reflect additional air quality improvements that would result from adopting specific air quality measures."

The agency notes that the draft plan’s "preferred alternative" estimates that the development focus areas — where projects will be concentrated — contain "516,000 acres of soils with moderate-to-high wind erosion potential."

"Inhalation of dust particles can lead to a number of respiratory problems, including asthma and Valley fever," the comment letter says. "The EPA supports minimizing disturbance to the natural landscape as much as possible, so that the need for measures to reduce wind erosion and fugitive dust emissions is minimized or eliminated."

Concerns about fugitive dust emissions are serious enough that large solar, wind and geothermal projects in the planning area may qualify as new "major stationary sources of air pollution," and thus be required under the Clean Air Act "to obtain an air pollution permit before commencing construction," the EPA comment letter says.

Could plan ‘undermine’ renewables?

The draft plan has also come under fire from some renewable energy developers.

Among the industry critics is Iberdrola Renewables LLC, which wrote in formal comments submitted this week that if the plan "is approved in its current form, it will hinder California’s push toward a clean energy future and undermine U.S. Department of Interior and Bureau of Land Management efforts to help promote and expedite prudent renewable energy development on Federal lands."

That is, in part, because the draft plan "limits development to unsubstantiated and overly-restrictive go/no-go areas in lieu of a more appropriate criteria-based methodology" that takes into account "on-the-ground data and/or changes to technology over time" that could allow projects in areas outside the development focus areas, wrote Jesse Gronner, Iberdrola Renewables’ managing director of business development.

Iberdrola Renewables is currently embroiled in a fight with BLM over the agency’s rejection of the company’s application for a variance that would have allowed it to build a 200-MW photovoltaic solar power plant on 1,600 acres of federal land near Death Valley National Park. The company and its subsidiary, Aurora Solar LLC, have appealed the decision to the Interior Board of Land Appeals (Greenwire, Jan. 9).

But other comment letters submitted by the wind power industry voice similar concerns.

Christian Marsh, a San Francisco-based attorney representing the Desert Wind Energy Association, submitted a comment letter this week that says the association "is disappointed in the DRECP planning effort," particularly the draft plan’s "severe restrictions on wind energy development in California’s desert region."

And in a separate comment letter, an attorney representing the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) wrote that DRECP planners ignored information provided by the industry on wind power’s "limited terrestrial footprint" and failed to provide necessary siting flexibility for wind farms in the planning area.

"This was a missed opportunity for the lead agencies to hold constructive dialogue with the wind industry and other interested stakeholders to develop a workable plan for tapping California’s most valuable wind energy resources," wrote Clark Morrison, a San Francisco-based attorney representing CalWEA.

Bird, bat concerns

Commenters also raised significant concerns about the possible impacts of commercial-scale solar and wind projects on birds and bats in the planning area.

The American Bird Conservancy, the nation’s largest bird conservation group, requested in comments submitted this week that the draft plan "be withdrawn and revised in order to provide a broader range of alternatives" that include "additional protective measures to address potential wind and solar energy development’s impacts on federally-protected bird species."

Steve Holmer, ABC’s senior policy adviser, wrote, "The draft reveals significant impacts to bird species of conservation concern and their habitats, and reflects what appears to be a general lack of concern and adequate conservation measures for migratory birds which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act."

ABC, Holmer wrote, is also concerned about a growing body of research indicating that photovoltaic solar panels can fool birds into thinking they are water bodies and that intense heat from solar mirrors can singe birds’ feathers, rendering them incapable of flight.

A study last year conducted by researchers with the Fish and Wildlife Service’s forensics laboratory analyzed 233 bird carcasses found at three Southern California solar plants. The study showed that traumas caused mostly by impacts with solar equipment were the leading cause of death, along with solar flux — a phenomenon in which intense radiant heat from mirrors burns the birds’ feathers (E&ENews PM, April 9, 2014).

"Recent studies and field tests indicate a large number of birds will be incinerated or fatally disabled as a result of crashing into the solar arrays (which they perceive as bodies of water) or flying through the extreme heat generated by solar reflectors," Holmer wrote.

This also concerns EPA, which wrote in its formal comments on the draft plan that "occurrences of avian mortality at utility scale solar sites was still emerging as an issue during the scoping and preparation" of the draft plan.

"Since then, the number of solar sites (both solar thermal facilities, as well as solar photovoltaic) reporting deaths of avian species has increased dramatically," EPA wrote.

While EPA notes in the comments that the draft plan "includes conservation and management actions" to address this issue, the "sheer size of the Plan Area … and the numerous utility-scale solar installations that could be subject to the provisions of the DRECP, portends avian mortality as a concern" that "warrants the development of strong on-site monitoring for all renewable energy projects developed within the Plan Area."

David Lamfrom, California desert associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association, said it was "encouraging to see the EPA take a strong stance on the draft plan."

NPCA has also submitted comments that, in part, raise concerns about impacts to birds. The association has asked that development not take place in the Eagle Mountain region adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park, which contains important golden eagle habitat.

But Lamfrom cautioned that the negative comments are not meant to tear down the DRECP.

"Our concerns reflect opportunities for the Interior Department to improve the DRECP to protect and value the most precious places in the desert," he said.

Click here to read additional public comments on the draft plan.