The California Energy Commission and federal Department of the Interior have approved eight major solar projects in Southern California since last year, including seven projects in the deserts north and east of the Coach

All but two of the approved plans utilize largely undeveloped public land managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. The projects are expected to generate:

• Nearly 3,600 megawatts of non-carbon-emitting electricity, enough to power almost 1.8 million homes.
• Some 5,500 jobs during construction of the projects, and nearly 1,000 long-term operational jobs.
• More than $15.2 million in annual property taxes, and hundreds of millions more in sales taxes as the projects are built.

Another eight utility-scale solar projects are also in the permitting pipeline for Riverside and Imperial counties, promising an additional 2,173 megawatts of renewable energy generation. And long-range plans are in the works that could open up millions more public acres to solar development in six western states, with the largest proposed solar energy zone in Riverside County.

“California is the national leader in clean energy, and our great state is poised to become the world leader in renewable energy generation,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Monday.

Brown earlier this month signed a bipartisan bill to further increase California’s renewable energy portfolio standard, now requiring that utilities get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, up from 20 percent.

The state of California and federal government are spurring the desert solar development, offering billions of dollars in federal loan guarantees, cash grants and tax breaks. On Monday, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $2.1 billion in federal loan guarantees for one project, a 1000-megawatt proposal near Blythe.

Another solar plant in development, Ivanpah in eastern San Bernardino County, received $1.37 billion in federal loan guarantees in February.

Perhaps ironically to some, the modern push for large-scale desert solar, it can be argued, started under former President George W. Bush and California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, California in 2002 passed a renewable energy portfolio standard calling for 20 percent of California’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2017. Schwarzenegger in 2006 moved the 20 percent target up to 2010.

Interest in solar development on federal land in the Southern California desert jumped from 20 applications in 2006 to about 150 the following year, said Greg Miller, BLM renewable energy program manager for the California Desert District. “We had what we called a land rush,” he said.

BLM had previously approved use of federal desert lands for things such as power line corridors — never anything of the size of solar energy projects, Miller said. “We were kind of learning as we were going,” he said.

In 2008, Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-14-08, streamlining renewable energy permitting and collaborating with federal agencies to develop the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, to facilitate desert energy development while maintaining natural resources conservation.

The push for solar has continued and expanded under Democratic President Barack Obama, whose administration has made green energy a priority, Hersey said. 

Schwarzenegger and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in October 2009 signed a memorandum of understanding between the state and Department of Interior that, among other things, developed a fast-track permit approval process allowing as many large-scale solar projects that could to begin construction by Dec. 1, 2010, making them eligible for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or federal stimulus, funding.

The fast-tracking “demonstrates how separate government processes can be coordinated without cutting corners or skipping any environmental checks and balances in the projects,” Salazar said Oct. 25 as he announced approval of the Blythe solar project. BLM Director Bob Abbey in October acknowledged what was at stake.

“With something as momentous as the introduction of large-scale solar development on the public lands, we have one chance to do things right,” he said. “That’s why we did complete environmental analyses on these projects with expanded opportunities for public participation.”

BLM stands to bring in more than $10.2 million a year in rental fees from the solar companies permitted or nearing approval to locate in the desert, along with more than $25 million in additional megawatt capacity fees.

Though projects are approved with thick, multi-volume environmental impact statements, many details aren’t yet resolved and are being worked out on the fly as work commences, including final plans on what will ultimately happen with endangered desert tortoise found on solar project sites.

Preliminary plans include moving the tortoise to other habitats, known as translocation — a controversial practice that top tortoise biologists say leads to high mortality rates.

A panel of independent scientists in October prepared a report for officials working on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, that concluded: “In general, moving organisms from one area to another … is not a successful conservation action and may do more harm than good to conserved populations by spreading diseases, stressing resident animals, increasing mortality, and decreasing reproduction and genetic diversity.

In approving Ivanpah, California Energy Commissioners stated, “We assume that a substantial number of translocated tortoise may perish.” But commissioners concluded the proposed mitigation efforts will make the impacts acceptable.

“Whether to approve this project or not is a policy decision to be made by the Energy Commission, after considering all the relevant factors, including scientific opinion,” they stated. “Input from the Advisory Panel is informative but we are not bound by any policy recommendations it makes.”

“The project helps address a global climate change problem of paramount importance and responds to state laws requiring a shift to renewable electricity sources,” the energy commission’s Ivanpah decision states.

Large-scale desert solar development proponents say use of the BLM-managed lands provides an opportunity to shape projects in ways that minimize negative impacts that other tracts of land might not.

“To combat climate change, changing our energy use has to be part of the solution. It will provide a significant solution to global warming for the future, while providing green jobs now.”

Federal agencies are currently working on an overarching framework for solar development on public lands in six western states, including California, called a solar programmatic environmental impact statement. The plan calls for creation of 24 federally designated solar energy zones, areas deemed most likely to work for large-scale solar development while minimizing environmental and cultural impacts. The largest of the zones, at 202,000 acres, is in eastern Riverside County’s open deserts.

The federal report recommends opening up even more land to solar development than the 667,384 acres currently under consideration across western states. Another 21.5 million acres of federal land could be considered for renewable energy development, including 1.7 million more acres in California, with 205,000 acres of the total in the deserts surrounding the Coachella Valley.

To many in the rest of the country, local concerns about the desert solar projects’ impacts aren’t the priority. “Societally, this is the kind of change that helps the whole country, the whole world,” said Kenneth Zweibel, director of the George Washington University Solar Institute in Washington, D.C.

“There’s much bigger value in helping the whole society, the whole world, than in the local issues. Something you are trying to protect is being changed, but it’s helping so much in terms of climate change, energy self sufficiency and clean energy, it’s a sacrifice that’s appropriate to take.”