California Desert Renewable Energy Plan Unveiled

Wind Turbines in arid country

By Maura Forrest

November 12, 2015

U.S. state and federal officials have released a landmark plan to regulate renewable energy development and conservation on four million hectares of California desert.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was released on Tuesday after an extended planning process that began in 2008. At that time, the region had begun to experience a surge of renewable energy applications that were being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“This strategy provides effective protection and conservation for wildlife, recreation and cultural resources, while encouraging streamlined renewable energy development in the right places,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in a news release.

The plan designates 157,000 hectares of federal land for potential renewable energy development, particularly solar, wind and geothermal projects. It also sets aside 2.1 million hectares for conservation and 1.5 million hectares for recreation.

The document is a revised version of an earlier draft that covered 9.1 hectares of federal and private lands, which were thought to have the capacity to generate up to 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy. That draft was met with heavy criticism from the seven affected California counties, which argued the plan conflicted with their own renewable energy development and conservation strategies for private lands.

This modified version deals only with federally managed lands. Private lands will be addressed later, on their own timeline.

The original plan was also criticized by environmental groups for failing to protect sensitive areas. In the new version, several areas previously designated for development have been given protection, including the Silurian Valley, parts of the Cadiz Valley and Eagle Mountain area, and the Palen Dunes.

“I think this is really great news for people that care about the desert and care about tackling climate change,” Sam Goldman, California program director for the Conservation Lands Foundation, told the Desert Sun.

The plan may help California achieve its recent commitment to have its utilities obtain 50 per cent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2050. It will also contribute to the Interior Department’s target of 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity on public lands by 2020.

But some renewable energy advocates say the plan didn’t go far enough in promoting the industry, since it only sets aside a small fraction of federal lands for development. It’s unclear how much energy capacity can be built on that land.