On Tuesday, the Obama administration released the first phase of a plan that will boost renewable energy in the solar-rich California desert while protecting millions of acres of sensitive land from development.
The land management plan, known as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), prescribes which federal and state lands in a 22.5-million-acre area of the California desert will be available for renewable energy development and which will be set aside to preserve the unique and valuable desert ecosystem.
The first phase of the plan, outlined in a final environmental impact statement released Tuesday by Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), provides a 25-year blueprint for the management of 10 million acres of federally-owned public lands from Death Valley to San Diego County, spanning seven counties. Phase two of the plan, which covers non-federal lands, is still under review.
“Using a landscape-level perspective, unprecedented collaboration and extensive public engagement, this phase of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan will facilitate clean energy development, creating new jobs while cutting carbon pollution,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in announcing the plan. “This strategy provides effective protection and conservation for wildlife, recreation and cultural resources, while encouraging streamlined renewable energy development in the right places.”
The final plan for public lands covered by the DRECP is unprecedented in scope and nature — taking more than five years to complete and reflecting a collaborative effort on the part of multiple stakeholders, including the California Energy Commission and the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service and the BLM, as well as local and state agencies.
As part of the plan, the BLM has identified areas designated for conservation, renewable energy development, and recreation. The DRECP identifies the best locations for renewable energy development to spur additional growth of clean energy resources and pave the way for a more sustainable future.
In particular, the BLM has established close to 388,000 of “Development Focus Areas,” which overlap with existing BLM Solar Energy Zones, as preference areas for renewable energy development due to their potential for renewable energy production, proximity to transmission, and reduced environmental impacts. The BLM says that solar energy projects that are proposed in these Development Focus Areas will benefit from a streamlined permitting process because environmental surveying and analysis has already been conducted in these zones.
To balance development in the area, the BLM has also set aside an additional 5.3 million acres of National Conservation Lands, Areas of Critical Environmental Concern, and Wildlife Allocations, including the treasured Silurian Valley, Chuckwalla Bench, and Amargosa River. This effort will provide protections for special desert landscapes that are home to a wide range of plants and species, such as the desert tortoise and bighorn sheep. The plan further dedicates over 3.5 million acres for recreation that are closed off to future development.
Hailed as a victory by the conservation and wildlife organizations for protecting critical lands in the California desert, Sam Goldman, California Program Director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, touted the plan’s success. “These permanent additions to the National Conservation Lands will ensure that while the communities in the desert continue to grow and renewable development takes place, Californian’s still have places to explore and that that large open space will remain open and free.”
The DRECP has been viewed as a tool to help California meet its aggressive climate targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels and its 50 percent renewable portfolio standard — the highest in the country. Under the plan, solar thermal, utility-scale solar photovoltaic, wind, and other forms of renewable energy will benefit from streamlined siting processes and simplified mitigation measures to cut down on permitting time and ensure projects are located in the right places.
“The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan is a key component of California’s, and our nation’s transition to a self-supporting, renewable energy economy,” said David J. Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of Interior in the Obama administration and scholar at Stanford University. “I applaud the Bureau of Land Management for working collaboratively through a robust public process and finding a good balance in the proposed plan that strengthens California’s lasting conservation legacy while contributing to a clean energy future.”
A recent Center for American Progress report co-authored by Hayes notes that the Obama administration has dramatically accelerated the approval and construction of utility-scale solar projects on public lands, and identifies opportunities for policy-makers to continue this progress and growth in an environmentally-responsible manner over the coming years.
Since 2009, the Interior Department has permitted 57 onshore utility-scale renewable energy projects, 17 of which are in the DRECP planning area and can provide enough energy to power as many as a quarter million homes.
This first phase of the DRECP will be finalized in early 2016 after a 30-day protest period, during which the public will have the chance to comment.
Nidhi Thakar is the Deputy Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow her on Twitter at @NidhiJThakar.