Renewable Energy in California Deserts: New Plan to Guide Smart and Sustainable Development

September 17, 2014 | 10:47 am
Laura Wisland
Former contributor

A draft of the long-awaited Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) will be released any day now. The DRECP is intended to provide a landscape-level assessment of the most appropriate and inappropriate places to build large-scale renewable energy projects in the California portions of the Mojave and Colorado deserts to minimize impacts on wildlife habitats and desert ecosystems. By identifying the most suitable locations for renewable energy projects, the DRECP will bring more efficiency and certainty to the project permitting process and help us meet our clean energy goals.

Unprecedented collaboration

It took more than five years of collecting data, making maps, and holding meetings to develop the first official draft DRECP. The effort required unprecedented collaboration between state and federal agencies, seven California counties–Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego–and a number of local and national groups working to protect desert plants and animals. It covers more than 22 million acres of land which happen to hold some of the strongest potential for solar, wind, and geothermal development in the country.

DRECP project boundary. Map courtesy of the California Energy Commission.

DRECP project boundary. Map courtesy of the California Energy Commission.

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.

What the DRECP means for renewable energy projects

The DRECP will propose land areas within the project boundary that are most suited for development of new renewable energy facilities which could collectively generate 20 GW of electricity. In theory, building projects on these “green-lighted” lands will require fewer studies to assess potential project impacts and less money spent on mitigation. The areas suggested for development are a mix of private and public lands, but emphasis was placed on finding private lands and lands that have already hosted some sort of disturbance, like agriculture or recreational activities.

What the DRECP means for land protection

The DRECP will also propose land areas that should be conserved and not developed at all. But because a lot of the land proposed for conservation will be located on public land—largely managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management—one of the biggest sticking points is figuring out how to guarantee that land stays protected through different administrations. The “durability” of these land conservation agreements will be key to ensuring the most sensitive areas in the Mojave and Colorado deserts are protected in perpetuity.

The DRECP could be a great tool. Let’s make it worth the effort.

It’s important to recognize how much time and effort that agencies, developers, and environmental groups have put into making this a meaningful document. I can’t help but think about how different our landscapes would look today if we had put this much effort into developing the coal and natural gas resources of the past (and present).

But unless the state develops new policies to drive renewable energy development beyond current levels required by state law, the effort put into the DRECP could be wasted. The state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), which requires utilities to source a third of their electricity sales from renewables by 2020, has been a driving force for clean energy development in California and neighboring western states. But many utilities are close to reaching that requirement, and once they do they are not required to invest in additional sources of clean electricity.

Stopping at 33 percent would be a mistake for California. Transitioning away from fossil fuels, towards a cleaner, safer, and more resilient electricity grid is going to require new investments in renewables, on both large and small scales. The DRECP could be an extremely helpful blueprint for how to make smart and sustainable new investments in desert areas that have incredible generation potential. By balancing conservation with our need to reduce carbon emissions, the DRECP promises to be an invaluable tool for planning the next generation of renewable energy development.