What DRECP means for future solar in the California desert

A draft of the much-awaited Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan (DRECP) has been released, with what critics say potentially forecloses renewable energy development over much of the southern quarter of the state of California. Now you have three months to add your two cents.

BLM at a public meeting

DRECP is an attempt to balance renewable energy development and conservation on 22 million acres of desert land in California. While 20 million acres would become conservation lands, 2 million acres would be set aside as suitable for renewable energy.

The draft plan is the result of six years of work led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the California Energy Commission.

The agreement between the four federal and state entities is an important and necessary first step. DRECP could help avoid future interagency conflict.

Boise University’s David Solan - who developed the PVMapper project to enable conflict-free siting - says that when he was working on an energy oversight committee in the US House of Representatives, he was surprised to find that solar developers were hampered not only by local opposition, but even by government agencies objecting to renewable energy developments that had been approved by other agencies.

"We do know development should not be allowed in certain parts of the desert, where it doesn't make sense, but we're going to allow it where it does make sense,” California Senator Barbara Boxer said in announcing the plan earlier this month. “And that's the beauty of this plan.”

Just an initial draft

Other stakeholders that include state and federal agencies that manage lands or programmes in the desert or regulate renewable energy development and transmission, and environmental organisations have participated. Now the draft plan is published for public review and comment as the final step towards its final adoption.

Helen O'Shea, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Western Renewable Energy Project, explains that this point, the DRECP Preferred Alternative is a draft document.

“Even though folks have been waiting for it for four or five years it really is just the first draft in the official process for moving this forward,” she says.

“Now is the time, that there is an official document that stakeholders have had a chance to look at and respond to, and there's a lot of work to be done on all sides, in terms of putting forward comments like saying you did a good job here and maybe not so much here. So there's a lot to be done.”

90 days to decide the future

The final form of the DRECP can now be further improved during the current 90 day public comment period by stakeholders on both sides, both those trying to stop renewable energy in the desert - and by those hoping to harvest the sun and wind for clean energy. But once finalised there will be no further chance for improvement.

Proximity to transmission and previously disturbed lands are priorities within the land favoured for renewables. But siting a solar project within a Development Focus Areas (DFA) is no guarantee of no opposition.

“However, guiding development zones to lower conflict areas should lead to lower levels of opposition to individual projects,” O’Shea believes.

California solar permitting attorney Andrew Bell of Marten Law contends that the DFA areas are too limiting.

“The draft DRECP severely constricts the amount of land available to renewable energy developers by further rolling back most of the variance lands BLM identified in the 2012 Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS),” he says.

Now 80 percent of the DFAs are on private land.

Another problem: stricter siting requirements; like quarter-mile setbacks from the desert’s pervasive ephemeral streams, could effectively prohibit solar even within much of the DFAs according to Bell.

Inflexibility set in stone

“The biggest problem is inflexibility,” Bell says. “Once DRECP is approved, DFAs are set in stone for a quarter century.”

But in assessing the vast area of 22 million acres through habitat models, the agencies are rarely able to check whether areas they determined to be important habitat are accurate, because detailed surveying of 22 million acres is impracticable.That level of scrutiny typically only begins once a developer identifies a specific site for a solar project.

“Ten years from now, or even two years from now, after the DRECP is all said and done, if you are proposing a new project, and you can show that there are no tortoise on site, but there is a DRECP map that says the site is great tortoise habitat, there is no mechanism proposed in the DRECP that allows you to rebut that presumption with substantial evidence,” says Bell. “That is a big problem.”

The importance of showing up

Concentrating Solar Power Alliance Director Tex Wilkins has an additional caution, based on his experience at the Department of Energy Solar program when federal agencies attempted to provide a framework for solar development under the PEIS that established Solar Energy Zones (SEZ).

“When we did the solar PEIS at the federal level, the BLM took into account all the comments. And the majority of comments were negative towards the development of solar in the zones. We opened up the land, but given where we started the process, there was a lot more land on the table than what came out at the back end,” he relates. “So it's important that people in the solar industry don't assume that 2 million acres is all going to come out after all the process is finished.”

Hard work required

The draft DRECP Preferred Alternative is 8,000 pages of unpleasantly bureaucratic reading. But wading through it is essential to the future of solar energy in the US, because to improve it, only “substantive” comments, based on what is in it, will be considered by the drafters.

An example of a “substantive” comment, which would qualify for being taken into consideration, would be one that responds in detail to specific elements of the plan, or challenges the scientific data, or the methodology used.

Comments that merely express a general opinion or wish, such as “we need more clean energy zones” much as we might like to make them, will not be considered.

These “substantive” comments can be emailed or mailed to DRECP from now until January 9, 2015.

Wilkins also strongly emphasises the importance of providing balance by showing up and speaking up at the series of public meetings to be held throughout California from October 20th to November 13.

“The solar industry just shouldn’t be complacent and think that what they see on the plan right now is going to wind up as the final plan,” he advises.