A plan for California desert conservation comes online

Will it stop more solar and wind projects from being built in the wrong places?

 

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell came to California's Mojave Desert on Tuesday to announce the release of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a five-year, multi-agency effort to make the desert safe for renewable energy development. But first, she had to go on a hike. “We went out into the Big Morongo Preserve,” she told reporters later. “Fifteen, 20 minutes from here, there are wetlands. Wetlands. And 254 different bird species. Who knew?”

I remember being surprised, too, in 2008, on a visit to that same preserve with Joan Taylor of the Sierra Club and Ruth Rieman of the California Desert Coalition for a story in this magazine. I thought I knew the desert, its decomposed granite playgrounds and treacherous cholla, its banded skies and varieties of lizards. But Morongo was a wonderland of flowers and seeps and birds, where a couple of times we had to stop and behold a tortoise munching on magenta flowers. It was also a wonderland through which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had planned to string a transmission corridor, the Green Path North, to bring geothermal energy from the Salton Sea to the transmission hubs that serve Los Angeles.

That transmission line never happened. As with so many renewable energy projects slated for the Mojave and Colorado deserts of California, Green Path North fell victim to market forces. Many more, however, will get built. Jewell, standing against

Jewell DRECP
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announces the release of a new conservation plan for renewable energy in California.
a background of windmills just outside of Palm Springs, California, said the Obama administration means to “double down” on its renewable energy goals, which so far have led to 13 utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands in the West.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, an analysis of 22.5 million acres of desert land, public and private, is an attempt, at least, to make sure those projects don’t ruin places like the Morongo Preserve. A collaboration among federal, state and local governments, industry, environmentalists and local residents, the conservation plan has loomed among all those groups as a potential end to energy and conservation conflicts. It will set aside land for conservation and protect desert species like the tortoise and fringe-toed lizard. It will guide developers toward land rich with transmission but poor in cultural and natural resources and help them identify which places their projects could trample.

It will be, Jewell said, a “road map” that can be used for other renewable energy development plans around the country. As Jewell spoke, the 8,000-page document went online for the first time.

So far, environmental groups have mostly praised the effort. Kim Delfino, the California program director at Defenders of Wildlife, told me she at least believes that certain fought-over areas, such as the Silurian Valley near Death Valley, will be cordoned off for conservation, “so we can focus on the projects we all can support.” The Sierra Club calls the plan “a promising step,” toward protecting “areas with environmental, cultural, or scenic value that should be preserved for future generations.” 

It also clears the way for 20,000 more megawatts of renewable energy to be built on desert lands by 2040. That’s 40 solar plants the size of Bright Source Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Generating Station on the California Nevada border, which has been frying birds at a disheartening rate. That many projects will require at least another 200,000 acres of land. The conservation plan’s “preferred alternative” designates more than 2 million acres on which to do it.

Two weeks before the plan came out, the California Energy Commission green-lighted a solar plant about an hour west of the wind turbines where Jewell spoke. The Palen Solar Power Plant, in the Colorado Desert, just outside Joshua Tree National Park, near the Arizona border, was conceived several years ago by the now-defunct German company Solar Millennium as a concentrating solar thermal plant where long troughs of ground mirrors would have focused the sun’s energy to produce electricity. To many, it wasn’t such a big deal.

“We didn’t even comment on it,” says Mark Butler, a former Joshua Tree National Park superintendent. “It really wasn’t an issue for the Park Service.”

Then Solar Millennium went bankrupt, and sold off its assets and projects to other developers. Palen made its way to Bright Source, which specializes in solar plants where large fields of mirrors focus sunlight on a tower that rises up to 750 feet high. The state energy commission last winter rejected the plan. There was concern about how the mirrors’ intense heat, which creates a phenomenon called solar flux, would affect birds flying so near to the Colorado River along the Pacific Flyway. At Ivanpah, the mirrors and three 500-foot towers seem to be creating an ecological “megatrap,” where heat and light attract insects, which attract birds, which lure even more wildlife into danger.

Palen promises to be a bigger concern, even if the Energy Commission, in a recent turn around on the project, cuts it in half. Its one tower will rise 750 feet, visible from Joshua Tree National Park. Would have the Desert Renewable Conservation Plan have stopped Palen, which is located in a Bureau of Land Management-approved Solar Energy Zone? If the plan had been done before land was chosen for projects like Palen and Ivanpah, would they be where they are?

Everyone who came to see Jewell speak expressed optimism, and everyone who spoke after her — including U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, and Congressman Raul Ruiz — jubilant and eloquent in his home district, the “magic and medicine” of the desert — did, too. In the meantime, however, many conservationists worry a disaster is unfolding at Palen that no newly hatched conservation plan can stop.

“If we want to do things ‘smart from the start,’” Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign told me, “we’ll stop and analyze what’s going on at Ivanpah. There’s an experiment going on out there, and we’re not done collecting data.” And no conservation plan, no matter how comprehensive and thoughtful, can substitute for that.