by Ellie Robins
An almighty shitstorm has been brewing in the Californian desert for the last decade or so. Everything finally erupted in September 2014, when a group of federal and state agencies released the draft of an eye-wateringly ambitious proposal they’d been working on for six years: the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, or DRECP. This plan is intended to streamline the permitting process for large-scale renewable-energy projects in the desert while protecting the desert and its wildlife, but don’t let the dryness of that description fool you. Among the many things at stake here are: state, and so national, and so global progress on climate change; endangered species; delicate ecosystems; public health; local economies; the justification for an enormous amount of public spending; and a fair few political reputations.
Here’s some background to the draft: in the early two thousands, the price of fossil fuels was rising precipitously, a lot of new research was emerging about climate change, and renewable energy technologies were getting much cheaper. The Californian and federal governments started setting targets and incentives for renewable energy—a smattering of the most relevant legislation is presented in the table below. The Californian deserts are some of the richest territories in the world for generating solar and wind energy, and as that table might suggest, California has also always been proudly aggressive about pursuing green policies. As the buzz about renewable energy grew, there was something like a gold rush on this desert land, and the number of applications for solar and wind projects in the Southern Californian deserts increased exponentially. In order to win approval, each application had to pass through a formidable amount of scattered federal and state legislation on endangered species, the environment, and land use.
The applications rapidly backed up at the Bureau of Land Management, the federal body that controls much of these lands. The BLM worked to assemble environmental impact statements and amend land use plans to reflect the environmental consequences of renewable plants, which are significant and will come to light later. In 2008, the BLM and the Department of Energy even tried to introduce a two-year moratorium on new solar applications in California and five other western states, pending completion of an environmental impact statement, but public and industry opposition soon forced them to rescind it.
That same year, 2008, then-governor Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline permitting for large-scale solar, wind, and geothermal projects in the desert while protecting the local environment. He called for a draft of the streamlining plan to be released by the end of 2010, and the final plan by July 2012.
The DRECP was that plan; by the time the draft was released in September last year, it was four years behind schedule. And get this: it’s eight thousand pages long, and available for download in 92 separate PDF documents, with a 106-page table of contents, 24 appendices, six acronym guides, and numerous maps. It’s easy to see how it mushroomed to such mammoth proportions: it has to cover 22.5 million acres of land containing a whole bunch of environmentally and culturally sensitive areas. But remember that this document was put on general release so that the public could comment, because it’s going to have far-reaching social and environmental consequences in local communities. It’s so lengthy and written in such impenetrable jargon that the desert-based environmental journalist Chris Clarke has called it “bad for democracy.” Worse still, its authors initially allowed just ninety days for responses, which would mean anyone interested had to read almost a hundred pages of said jargon every day just to process the document in the allotted time, never mind formulating the kind of substantive comment required to pass muster. People complained about this so vociferously that the comment period was extended by two months, until February 2015. By the time that window closed, the authors had received more than twelve thousand comments, many of them objections, from local governments, federal agencies, Native American tribes, environmental organizations, the renewable energy industry, and the general public. On 10 March, the authors of the DRECP wisely announced that given the furore, they were radically rethinking their approach—but not abandoning the document altogether.
This seems an opportune moment to introduce those authors. The draft DRECP was put together by a “Renewable Energy Action Team,” or REAT, comprising the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. They also requested input from other agencies, like the National Parks Service and the Department of Defense, which owns a lot of land in the desert; from independent scientists; and from a “stakeholder committee” representing those with a particular interest in the plan, including environmental organizations, Native American organizations, and renewable energy developers.
And what did the plan suggest? The mission was to introduce a landscape-wide framework for approving renewable-energy projects on this very renewables-rich land, in order to avoid the current adhoc approval process, which can be lengthy and generates a terrific amount of work for everyone involved, from renewables companies to regulators at all levels. First of all, the draft estimated that by the plan’s cutoff point in 2040, the Californian deserts might need to provide 20,000 megawatts of power. That’s the same as the current goal for renewable energy permitting on public lands throughout the whole country by 2020. The Action Team is keen to point out that 20,000 megawatts is not a goal; it’s simply an estimate of how much renewable energy the desert might need to be generating by 2040, based on things like state and national targets and trends in energy usage.
The draft then proposed five possible plans for siting 20,000 megawatts’ worth of renewable-energy facilities in the desert (six if you include a no-action plan of continuing to permit on an adhoc basis), one of which was identified as the “preferred alternative.” That preferred alternative designated around 2 million acres of private and public land as “Development Focus Areas,” meaning areas under active consideration for siting renewable-energy projects. Not all Development Focus Areas will go on to host renewable plants; the plan simply identified spots the authors believe present the least environmental and cultural conflict. The preferred alternative also created new protections on 4 million acres of land, which would become BLM “National Conservation Lands.” And as is standard in permitting practice, it proposed a mitigation plan—a form of compensation for the environmental damage that everyone agrees is inevitable with these sorts of developments.
One of the most fascinating things about the DRECP is that it has environmentalists up in arms about a plan to make it easier to generate renewable energy. To those of us whose homes have never been threatened by the installation of a huge solar or wind plant, that might seem counterintuitive: renewables are so often touted as a miracle cure for a global population that can’t seem to control its energy usage and stop choking itself and the planet to death. But the comments on the draft DRECP underline quite how destructive large solar and wind plants are for the local environment. There really is no such thing as a miracle. This tension between the local environment and the global need for cleaner energy is the major faultline of this argument, and it’s one we’re going to see recurring time and again as renewable-energy planning amps up around the world.
First of all, it’s important to debunk the notion that the desert is home to a ton of sun and wind and not a lot else. The public comments point out over and over again how rich the desert is in wildlife and plant life. There are endangered desert tortoises to be found here as well as bighorn sheep, great-horned owls, desert iguanas, Gambel’s quail, Northern White Skipper butterflies, and more familiar friends like coyotes. The Mojave Desert Land Trust, an organization that protects these desert areas by strategically buying privately owned land within them, also points out that many of these species depend on wildlife corridors, and that a solar or wind plant in a wildlife corridor will cut it off and could endanger species. The desert is also what the Mojave Desert Land Trust describes as “one of the floristic frontiers in the United States.” What they mean by that is that we don’t even know what an estimated 6 to 10 percent of the plants here are yet. It’s one of the richest sources of plant discovery in the country. The existence of still-undiscovered life in the desert is a really good tool for understanding that losing these ecosystems isn’t just a shame for local conservationists, though they’re the ones voicing their concerns. This environment doesn’t belong to the local community; it’s a global heritage, and when it’s lost, every single one of us is losing out, the more so because we’re losing out on opportunities to increase human understanding.
Anyone who doubts the severity of the impact that large renewable plants can have on an ecosystem need only look to the Google-backed Ivanpah facility, which sits on five square miles on the California–Nevada border and was responsible for 150 birds being burned to death before it even opened: they flew through the powerful heat reflected from 300,000 mirrors, each the size of a garage door, that reflect sunlight to heat water in water towers, turning turbines that provide enough power for 140,000 homes. And even if the renewable facilities that are ultimately permitted under the DRECP are cleverly designed so as not to double as bird-zapping lasers, the danger to birds from wind turbines is well known by now. These major threats are among the things that local environmentalists want to avoid—and they’ve got some heavyweight support.
In a fairly devastating blow to the DRECP, the Environmental Protection Agency submitted a long comment during the comment period, raising a variety of concerns about the draft’s recommendations. The impact on bird populations is among their worries, and the agency expressly recommends greater provision for anticipating, monitoring, and preventing the threat to birds from renewable facilities.
The EPA also raised environmental concerns about specific areas, such as the Amargosa River near the Nevada border. This is a very delicate hydrological system, and though it’s already heavily protected, the EPA and other environmentalists point out that the DRECP fails to account for the impact of even minor changes to nearby environments on such finely balanced water systems. That’s a pretty big oversight when you consider that this plan was put in place specifically to protect just such environments.
And that’s not the only thing the original draft failed to balance. In fact, there’s one vital piece of environmental information that could significantly counteract the carbon benefits of building these huge renewable plants in the first place. That’s a phenomenon called carbon sink, which you may have heard about in a different context, through the Kyoto protocol. A carbon sink is a land feature that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere—so, for example, forests are carbon sinks, and under Kyoto, countries with a lot of forestry are allowed to offset them against their carbon emissions. Scientists have discovered that the desert acts as a carbon sink, too, so disturbing desert soil and sand by grading it for renewable plants could release carbon into the atmosphere—exactly the phenomenon we’re trying to avoid by switching to renewable energy.
This research is still very new, but the Action Team is well aware of it; in fact, they commissioned a report by some leading researchers in the field while putting together the draft. I spoke to Karen Douglas, the Commissioner of the California Energy Commission, about how the DRECP will navigate this crucial piece of information. She told me that one of the researchers’ specific recommendations is that a certain type of desert landscape known as desert riparian woodland likely stores a lot of carbon, and so should be kept intact—and as a result the draft built in “a very strong set of avoidance criteria for that kind of landscape.” But she was also clear that it’s difficult to plan for carbon sink, since it’s such a new area of research—and the leading scientists confirm that they don’t yet have the numbers locked down. When we spoke before the public comment period ended, Commissioner Douglas told me:
This may be an area where public comment helps us, and we’ve certainly been encouraging people who are interested in the issue and who have done research in this area to make comments… I would say that we need more research and better understanding of these issues, period.
Which makes sense—but of course there’s a timescale issue here. Public comments are now closed, and much more painstaking research is still needed in order to figure out how much carbon might be released when this land is disturbed. Dr. Michael Allen of the University of California, Riverside, is one of the leading researchers on desert carbon sequestration, and was on the team commissioned to report on the phenomenon for the DRECP. He told me:
I agree that more research is needed. But it needs to be funded, and undertaken before rather than afterward. The frequent environmental practice is to agree that we need more research, then proceed with the development until it is too late to do anything about it. I don’t see any change in that pattern going on here.
That comment was made before the Action Team announced that they were rethinking their approach—but as I’ll explain later, the ways in which they’re rethinking their approach are unlikely to do anything to avoid this time crunch.
The EPA also raised a public health concern, because let’s not forget that the desert is a habitat for humans as well as plants and wildlife. More than 800 square miles of the tracts originally identified as Development Focus Areas have soils that are likely to erode significantly in the wind if their top layers are disturbed. That would lead to particulate matter in the air, especially when the wind blows—and particulate matter ain’t good. In the words of the EPA:
Inhalation of dust particles can lead to a number of respiratory problems, including asthma and Valley fever. Children, in particular, have greater sensitivities to various environmental contaminants, including air pollutants, as do the elderly and those with existing respiratory or cardiac disease.
The EPA suggests adding a whole new stage of research into the plan, which would determine whether plants in various spots should have to apply for permits under the EPA’s air-pollution-monitoring framework. The idea is that renewable facilities should be treated similarly to coal-fired facilities when it comes to monitoring air pollution. That should tell you something about the scale of the problem we’re talking about here.
Counties in the area covered by the DRECP raised concerns, too, about its likely economic and ecological ramifications, and about their own lack of involvement in its conception. Five of the seven counties already have their own renewable-energy planning efforts underway, and they see conflict between their own plans and priorities and those of the DRECP. This is a major problem: counties need to cooperate with the DRECP in order to make this whole planning process worthwhile, and right now it looks like many of them are dubious. County objections seems to be the major factor behind the Action Team’s change of approach post-comments: there’s been talk of switching to a “tailored county-by-county approach”—a marked departure from the original mission of creating a landscape-wide framework.
And it might be that even with more time and greater alignment of existing plans, counties will have their reservations. That’s because many people question the very principle on which the DRECP is founded. Remember the whole idea here is to provide a streamlined but environmentally sound way to grant permits for huge renewable-energy plants—the kind known as “utility-scale,” meaning they feed vast quantities of power directly into the grid. The problem is, in the six years since these agencies started writing the draft, the thinking about renewable energy has changed. Solar technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, and distributed generation, or “rooftop solar,” which uses the built environment instead of requiring enormous land disturbance, is now a much more viable option for gathering significant amounts of energy. In recent years there have been murmurings from energy pundits and even reportedly from within the renewable industry that “utility solar is dead.”
The authors of the DRECP have not factored those technological advances into the plan, and this is a major bone of contention. The Action Team is still working under the idea of harvesting a huge proportion of California’s energy from the desert—an idea that even the EPA has challenged, recommending regular reevaluations of the amount of energy actually required from this landscape. Reevaluations, it’s important to underline, that have been absent from planning in the six years to date. In fact, the EPA points out that the 20,000-megawatt goal already seems both high and arbitrary: it’s the current target for permitting in the whole country by 2020, remember. To expect the Californian desert to be generating that volume all on its own by 2040 seems a very hefty burden.
I spoke to Jim Kenna, the California Director of the BLM, about counties’ fears that they’re being asked to designate much more land than necessary for renewable projects that might be outdated anyway. He told me, “It’s really important to understand that having a planned approach does not authorize projects. So we project 20,000 megawatts as the need for this portion of California. If it comes in and demand changes and it’s 15,000, there’ll be a different scenario out there.” But it’s easy to understand counties’ reservations about adopting the plan, even with the gentleman’s assurance that they might not be required to sign off on the maximum possible acreage of Development Focus Areas. Throughout the desert are many communities that derive much of their income from tourism. People flock to these deserts from all over the world because they’re attracted by their vast expanses of unspoiled space. Solar or wind farms smack in the middle of that space will ruin that tourist value, and with it, potentially, local economies.
The EPA also echoed another very common complaint: that the draft DRECP doesn’t try hard enough to focus development on previously disturbed lands. Disturbed lands tend to be privately owned, so permitting on them presents the Action Team with more of a headache than signing up public land. The payoff for that is that they’ve already lost their original value as wildlife and plant habitat, and they’ve already released the carbon they were storing in the first round of disturbance. From the environmental perspective, they look pretty ideal for hosting renewable facilities—and yet the DRECP seems to be moving away from them.
On Tuesday 10th March, a few weeks after the comment period closed, the authors of the DRECP made an announcement. Having started processing the twelve thousand comments received, they’ve decided to use what they call a “phased approach” to finalising the plan. First of all, they’ll focus on the provisions for public land, as agreed with the BLM. While that phase is being implemented, the other agencies involved in writing the plan will work on the provisions for private land; much of that work will be with counties, trying to address some of their concerns and better align the DRECP with local planning efforts.
The good news is that this shows that public comments really are being taken into account—even if only because it looked likely that counties would refuse to cooperate otherwise. The potentially bad news is that it throws the emphasis, at least for now, onto public land. That’s bad news because those are precisely the areas where most conservationists wanted to avoid development: public land is more likely than private land to be pristine. Now, the first thrust of the DRECP’s implementation is going to focus on land that still has its original value as wildlife and plant habitat, and that’s still holding the carbon it’s been sequestering.
As yet, there’s no way to tell whether this actually means that more public land will be developed. There was a big question mark over how much public land would be developed anyway, since the draft presents a range. What we can say is that California has some extremely ambitious energy targets to meet, and will soon have an efficient permitting framework in place for public land, and no real indication of when it’ll come into effect on private land.
Chris Clarke, the desert-based environmental journalist who’s done amazing work in taking the Action Team to task, points out another flaw in the phased approach: “Releasing the BLM's phase as a Final Environmental Impact Statement may even open the REAT to charges of ‘piecemealing,’ or conducting environmental review of a project in separate segments. Piecemealing is prohibited by federal law.”
So the Action Team has an extremely delicate game of extrication and rewriting to play. Unsurprisingly, they can’t say when any of the phases will come into effect. When pressed, Jim Kenna suggested a ballpark of the end of this year for the public land component. Given that the draft was four years behind schedule, it seems reasonable to assume that the following stages will be a long while behind that.
Meanwhile, there is still permitting going on: counties have their own processes for approving renewable energy projects, as does the BLM. It’s just that those processes don’t yet contain the extensive environmental information gathered for the DRECP, and they can be glacially slow.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
There are several difficulties to address here.
Clearly, it’s important to put together the smartest land-use plan possible, and the commentators have pointed out many specific ways in which the draft DRECP fails to do that, some of them very substantial. It remains to be seen whether the Action Team’s recent announcement will allow them to address those difficulties; in certain instances, such as that of carbon sink, it seems unlikely that it will.
But even if by some miracle the smartest possible plan is put in place, there’s going to be some land disturbance. So the underlying question is: How do you place a value on these different environmental priorities? How do you possibly determine what, for example, endangered desert tortoise habitat is “worth”? Or for that matter the habitat of a scattered but devoted human population? And how do you compare that value to whatever you’ve determined a utility-scale renewable plant is worth?
The answer to those questions depends on your perspective, and is likely to look pretty different from Sacramento or San Francisco or even Washington D.C. than from Joshua Tree or the Amargosa Valley. The authors of the DRECP have spent the past few years trying to balance these state and local perspectives.
But state and local perspectives aren’t the only ones they’re balancing, and you get a definite sense of this in talking to Karen Douglas, the Commissioner of the California Energy Commission. In the press call that announced the post-comment change of plan, she said:
As we think about transforming our electricity system to a point at which we can run the world’s eighth largest economy on 50 percent or more renewable energy, we have to be really creative and really pragmatic about how to create a system mix that’s going to work [...] This trajectory that we’re on is going to require us to think beyond the California desert and beyond the California borders as well.
That comment was made in response to a question about the DRECP’s failure to factor in advances in rooftop solar. In short, she said, “We are looking at a scale of transformation in the way the electricity system works that cannot be delivered by one approach or one technology alone.” In other words, the California Energy Commission is thinking very hard about the uses of rooftop solar—just not under the DRECP, since the whole point of this proposal is to plan for utility-scale solar. And the idea that rooftop solar throughout the state could make utility-scale solar unnecessary in the desert fails to account for the shortfalls of rooftop, like the fact that much of the state is coastal and so experiences much more cloud coverage than the deserts. For the people of the desert, the sad fact is that their home is unbelievably rich in solar and wind energy, and the state will need to make use of those resources in some way if it’s to meet its very ambitious renewable-energy goals—like Governor Jerry Brown’s January announcement that 50 percent of California’s energy will come from renewable sources by 2030. This is definitely an unfair burden to ask these communities and this landscape to shoulder, given how little of the energy that’s harvested they’ll be using themselves. But if legislators aren’t ambitious about switching to cleaner energies, these communities and landscapes will be endangered anyway.
At this point I think it’s helpful to consider an alternative approach to energy and the environment: that of Texas. Just like California, Texas has been directly and horribly affected by climate change in the form of historic droughts: the 2011 Texan drought caused more than $10 billion in damages, devastated many farmers, and led to numerous wildfires and lake closures. But unlike California, Texas has a vested interested in protecting the oil industry. Not only is the state not promoting renewable energies, its officials are outright denying that climate change exists. Vice put together an excellent, terrifying report on Texas’s approach to addressing its drought problem, which can pretty much be summed up as: a wish and a prayer. They quote the former Texas Governor Rick Perry on climate change: “The science is not settled on this. The idea that we would put Americans’ economy at jeopardy based on a scientific theory that’s not settled yet is nonsense.” And things aren’t getting any better: the new governor, Greg Abbott, has fought the regulation of greenhouse gases and sued the EPA numerous times for what he sees as excessive environmental protections.
So here we have two polar approaches to energy planning and climate change. Clearly, Texas’s example is terrible; to use it as justification for the state of California taking whatever liberties it likes with its pristine lands would be like invoking Hitler in any rational conversation: dangerous and absurd. But the comparison should help us to view the DRECP’s admittedly imperfect work in the right light. The plan’s provisions stretch all the way to 2040. The Action Team has tried to project what energy usage and renewable requirements might look like in the next twenty-five years, and depending on your position, you might think their methods are pretty crap. The truth is, it’s an extremely hard thing to do, and it’s made harder by being so very controversial. And yet it’s essential to try; failure to do so looks a lot like a ruined Texan farmer praying for rain even while her government keeps courting the oil industry.
The DRECP faces a staggering number of hurdles, and it looks like the Action Team is going to stumble at some of them. It’s important to challenge them on each and every one. But the impulse to look far into the future and beyond state boundaries, even if it means copping a whole bunch of flak, isn’t just good, it’s vital.