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Plan released to mitigate impact of big solar, wind on desert

State, federal officials hope plan will limit impact of large-scale renewable energy projects on California desert

SAN FRANCISCO—State and federal officials are looking to bring order to California’s boom for renewable energy facilities in the Mojave and other southern California deserts, releasing a roadmap covering 22.5 million acres that designates some areas for large-scale solar, wind and geothermal plants and others for conservation of desert habitat and animals.

“We have amazingly special places here,” United States Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said in a news conference at a desert wind farm near Palm Springs with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and other officials releasing the multi-agency draft plan.

By taking a look at the desert as a whole, Jewell said, the plan’s designers are ensuring “the areas that should be protected are set aside (and) the areas that should be developed are streamlined” for building utility-scale renewable energy plants.

The release of the plan follows a renewable energy building boom in southeastern California’s deserts during the first term of the Obama administration, when the federal government gave billions of dollars in loans to developers placing sprawling, utility-scale solar projects in virgin desert.

The plan released this week recommends designating a total of two million acres as appropriate sites for future solar, wind and geothermal projects.

Another 4.9 million acres under the U.S. Bureau of Land Management would be among the areas set aside as conservation land, if the draft plan is adopted.

Jewell’s release of the plan opens a period of public comment through January.

Renewable energy developers and conservationists said they would be studying the more than 8,000 pages to learn exactly how areas were designated and under what rules.

The 22.5 million acres of public and private land in seven southeastern California counties were “enough land for us to find a way to both protect species as well as find a way to develop renewable energy,” Anne Baker of the renewable energy industry’s Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies said after the plan’s release. “We can figure this out.”

State and federal energy and wildlife officials created the draft plan for future projects after five years of consultation with conservationists, scientists and developers, aboriginal tribes and others.

California is on track to meet a state goal of having a third of its energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

In advance of the plan’s release, conservationists pointed to the Ivanpah solar plant, opened in January on 4,000 acres near the Nevada border.

The US$2.2-billion solar plant displaced desert tortoises, compelling developers NRG Energy, Inc., BrightSource Energy, Inc. and Google Inc. to spend more than US$20 million to try to safeguard the tortoises, which the federal government has listed as a threatened species.

The plant, using a different form of solar energy than solar panels, also has proven unexpectedly deadly to birds that flew through its concentrated solar rays.

NRG and BrightSource officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Energy developers say environmental concerns have made building desert energy projects slower and more expensive than they should be.

“There’s a real urgency for getting projects up as quickly as possible,” Mark Tholke, vice-president of EDF Renewables, said Mbefore the plan’s release. “To meet the challenge of climate change … we need cost-effective large projects.”

Up until now, conservationists say, the push for industrial-scale renewable energy projects in the Mojave did needless harm to desert species and habitat.

“The emphasis was on developing massive projects on desert lands (with) little effort to minimize the impact,” said Glenn Stewart, a biologist and member of the board of directors of the Desert Tortoise Council conservation group.

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