Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan Proposed for Southern California

Last month, the Department of Interior (DOI) proposed a landscape-level plan for conservation and renewable energy development in Southern California.

It took five years to create the "Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan," which covers over 22.5 million acres of California desert. The draft plan recommends 2 million acres for renewable energy development, 4.9 million acres for conservation and 3.6 million acres for recreation. 

In one of the largest remaining intact desert landscapes in the US, environmental groups want development directed to degraded farmland and other already disturbed areas. There’s bound to be controversy over the final version.

For example, environmental groups don’t want to open the pristine Silurian Valley near Death Valley National Park to development, where Iberdola Renewables wants to build a 23-square-mile solar and wind project:


credit: John Dittli

DOI wants to protect almost 2 million acres as "areas of critical environmental concern" for 37 endangered species, such as the California condor and desert bighorn sheep. They would also be protected across the entire 22 million acres, and 300,000 acres would be set aside as wilderness.   

Still, conservationists – including us – would much rather have the emphasis be on rooftop solar and on brownfields.

"This is a major milestone, and I hope it is one of many that we can launch around the country in the 2½ more years that I’m in this job," says Sally Jewell, Secretary of Interior. "We have amazingly special places here. Understanding what they are and that they do deserve protections, understanding the level of protections they have now, and working with partners at every level of government so that the areas that should be protected are set aside, and the areas that should be developed have a streamlined process to development."

Most of the acreage is in San Bernardino County (11.9 million acres) and the rest is spread across Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Diego counties.

"Public input is a critical part of the process and will help us develop the best possible final plan," adds John Laird, Secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency. Comments are accepted through January 2015.
Like the Solar Energy Zones created for the West, the plan identifies in advance where renewable energy projects can be developed under a competitive bidding process. They are near existing transmission infrastructure or in places where it can be built.  
Under President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, he directed DOI to approve at least 20 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.
14.2 GW have already been approved since 2009. An amazing, 52 utility-scale renewable energy projects – 17 of which are in California – will produce power for 4.8 million homes. 

This new plan assumes 20 GW will be developed in the area by 2040.

There are currently 19 Solar Energy Zones – two in California – covering almost 300,000 acres in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah. If fully developed, projects could produce  27 GW of energy for 8 million homes. 

To read the draft and submit written comments:   

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