The publication of the Preferred Alternative draft of the much-awaited Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP) brings both hope and consternation to supporters of clean energy in California.
DRECP would close approximately 20 million acres of a 22 million acre area of California desert lands to large-scale renewable energy development, while still allowing renewable development on about 2 million acres of mostly private lands, such as disturbed farmland.
But much of the public land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would no longer be available for renewable development. Two state and two federal agencies, the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and the California Energy Commission (CEC) took the lead on crafting the plan and have now come to agreement.
Reaching agreement between the four agencies, with their sometime incompatible interests, is an enormously valuable first step in cutting down on interagency conflict that has been one of the factors making CSP permitting in California so arduous.
With the participation of some environmental and some renewable stakeholders, the four agencies have now hammered out their Preferred Alternative that they believe best meets the goal of advancing renewable energy development while conserving critical habitats in the desert.
It is a massive undertaking six years in the making. The draft DRECP Preferred Alternative is 8,000 pages of very heavy going.
"The complexity of the plan and the scale is completely unprecedented, as is the four-agency collaboration," says Helen O’Shea, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Western Renewable Energy Project.
"Because the 22 million acre plan is a combined federal and state plan, it involves multiple land ownerships, multiple technologies, multiple species, and multiple regulatory and legal mandates."
As a former CEC Chairman, BrightSource Energy SVP of Government Affairs Joe Desmond has an inside perspective on the regulatory side of renewables. He gives real credit to the CEC in particular for truly trying to bring some balance to the process.
"It is an important and helpful exercise," Desmond tells CSP Today. "It is the culmination of many, many hours of work by various parties to try and strike a balance for responsible development in the desert with protection for very important habitat and species."
The theory was that the 2 million acres selected as Development Focus Areas (DFAs) would allow the development of up to 20 GW of new renewable energy by 2040.
"If we are going to deal with climate change and deal with it in a timeframe that has a meaningful impact and avoids significant negative outcomes, this is a positive step forward. Hopefully it will serve as a good example of how people with very different views can try and find some common ground," he says, but adds: "The devil is always in the details."
Despite the obvious best intentions of the participants, some are concerned that this draft fails the renewable side of the equation.
The Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies (CEERT) would like to see faster and more predictable permitting schedules, of for example eighteen months, with public oversight and corrective action taken if milestones are not met. Similarly, CEERT suggests ways that transmission permitting, that currently can take up to five years, can be speeded up.
Marten Law’s Andrew Bell, an attorney who advises solar developers on utility scale permitting in California tells CSP Today that from an industry perspective, the DRECP could be problematic for several reasons.
Until now, a lot of renewables developed during the Obama administration have been sited on BLM-administered lands. But under the draft DRECP plan, much of that public land is taken off the table, with 80 percent of the DFAs on private lands such as disturbed farmland. Mitigation land will be sited primarily on BLM lands.
Siting constraints within the DFAs appear to have become more restrictive than they are currently.
"Much of what remains as a DFA may be already taken," Bell says. "And the siting standards contemplated by the draft DRECP, such as quarter-mile setbacks from the ephemeral streams that pervade the desert, could effectively prohibit solar even within the DFA."
The biggest overriding problem he sees is that initial estimates of sensitive habitat, ruling out renewable development, are baked into the plan, particularly for the federal lands, even if facts on the ground turn out to be different.
"The problem is that the framework the DRECP creates has no provision for a rebuttable presumption," says Bell. "Even though they are planning on a twenty two and a half million acre scale, and using probabilistic models – even if I can demonstrate, with substantial evidence that the presumptions as they apply to my project site are incorrect; there is no provision to correct it."
The draft has long-term implications for CSP development in the California desert. Once finalised, DRECP will be in place for the next quarter century, during a time when the need for solar that can include storage like CSP will become increasingly important.
Be in to win
Typically it is those who object to a development who are the majority at local meetings, and that can skew decision-making by public officials, according to Tex Wilkins, a veteran of the Department of Energy (DOE), who now directs the Concentrating Solar Power Alliance (CSPA).
"Generally it is the people that are opposed to something that are the most vocal and the most likely to submit comments," he says.
Based on his experience at the DOE Solar program, when federal agencies tried to map out the best options for renewable energy development on public lands with the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), but they wound up with much less solar land than when they started, Wilkins believes that the best defence is a good offence.
"Supporters would benefit if they showed up at each of the meetings and made their views known," he advises. "If there are no positive comments then you have to give a lot more weight to the negative comments."
There are a series of public meetings to be held throughout California from October 20th to November 13.
Or "substantive" comments can be emailed or mailed to DRECP from now until January 9, 2015. "Substantive" comments are ones that respond in detail to specific elements of the plan, or challenge