U.S. Finalizes Phase 1 of Desert Renewable Energy Plan

DRECP covers 10.8 million acres of federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management

The first phase of the much awaited U.S. Department of Interior’s (DOI) Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), unveiled on Wednesday, September 14th, 2016, aims to foster development of renewable energy, especially solar and wind projects, on federal and private lands in California, while preserving desert habitats. The Phase 1 of the plan covers 10.8 million acres of federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as reported by Reuters. The DRECP aims to address climate change issues, effectively capping eight years of collaboration between federal land managers, renewable energy developers and environmental advocates. The U.S. government’s Climate Action Plan has called on the DOI to permit 20,000 MW of renewable power by 2020.

s1The DRECP has designated 388,000 acres (157,000 hectares) in the desert regions of Southern California as Development Focus Areas (DFAs) for renewable energy expansion. These areas can accommodate roughly 27 GW of renewables capacity using current technology, according to the DOI. Defining the DFAs is part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and the intent is to provide incentives and streamline wind, solar and geothermal projects in these areas. Applications for projects in those areas will receive a streamlined permitting process and possible financial incentives.

The DRECP also seeks to define the areas in the California desert that are important for wildlife, recreation, and other uses and should be protected. It covers lands in Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Phase 1 of the DRECP represents only the public lands component of about 10.82 million acres of the DRECP. Within that area, apart from the DFAs, there are roughly 500,000 acres of Variance Process Lands, General Public Lands, and Extensive Recreation Management Areas, where renewable energy development may be considered, the government said.

Wind and solar industries miffed

Environmentalists have applauded the move, saying that the DRECP is an important aspect of meeting California’s ambitious climate goals, including 50% renewables by 2030. Environmentalists have also said that the plan allows for the right balance between preserving wildlife and plant habitats and allowing for ample wind and solar development.

s2However, a coalition of five wind and solar energy trade groups – the American Council on Renewable Energy, the California Wind Energy Association, the California & Nevada State Association of Electrical Workers, the Large-scale Solar Association, and the Solar Energy Industries Association – have said that the size of the area set aside for development under Phase 1 represent just a fraction of the 10.8 million acres that BLM studied as part of the DRECP. Hence, the land allocation falls far short of what California and the U.S. will need to meet carbon reduction goals.

The coalition is miffed that the project favors land conservation, while limiting the ability to build projects that are critical to meet the nation’s climate goals. Wind and solar developers worry that much of the 388,000 acres set aside for them will not actually make sense for their projects, since these areas have not yet been cleared for potential conflicts with military exercises and have yet to be surveyed for impacts to avian species. Moreover, the coalition opines that since the government has imposed new environmental restrictions on those areas, the cost of development of renewable projects in these areas will be unfeasible. In all, the coalition feels that rather than fostering sustainable clean energy development as a part of a conservation plan, it severely restricts wind and solar project goals.

s3Christopher Mansour, Vice President of Federal Affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, has said that the BLM has restricted the areas where and how solar energy projects can be developed in the desert regions. The BLM said another 400,000 acres could be considered for renewable energy development.

In the meantime, Phase 2 of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is now moving forward, targeting private lands that are considered to be low conflict and thus more suitable for renewable energy development. The focus will now move to the west Mojave Desert that stretches across San Bernardino and Kern Counties, and is expected to take several years to complete.

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