Residents with differing opinions on the appropriateness of solar energy projects in Inyo County gather in Independence to hear county, state and federal government representatives explain the state‚Äôs Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan ‚Äď designed to help provide effective protection and conservation of desert ecosystems while allowing for the appropriate development of renewable energy projects. Photo by Charles James
A Gallup poll conducted March 7-10, 2013 showed that 76 percent of Americans support solar energy. In a very ambitious move, the state of California is requiring that solar, wind and other renewable sources make up 33 percent of the electricity supply by 2020.
During a public meeting hosted by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors last Tuesday evening in Independence, county, state and federal government representatives met to explain the state‚Äôs Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which is designed to help provide effective protection and conservation of desert ecosystems while allowing for the appropriate development of renewable energy projects.
The DRECP‚Äôs focus is on the desert regions and adjacent lands of seven California counties: Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego, encompassing approximately 22.5 million acres of federal and non-federal California desert land that goes all the way down to the Mexican border. There are also more than 40 Indian tribes involved with the plan, many of whom have renewable energy projects of their own.
After welcoming remarks by the Board Chairperson Linda Arcularius and Planning Director Josh Hart, the meeting was turned over to Commissioner Karen Douglas with the California Energy Commission, who thanked the board for the invitation to explain the purpose of the DRECP and why it has become increasingly important to be ‚Äúproactive‚ÄĚ rather than ‚Äúreactive.‚ÄĚ As explained by Douglas, the state of California is on an ambitious renewable and conservation effort and rather than do things the way they have been done in the past, on a project-by-project basis, it was decided that it would be much better to have an overarching plan to provide greater surety to renewable energy developers‚Äô timelines and cost estimates.
Under the DRECP, the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ‚Äď also known as the Renewable Energy Action Team ‚Äď will coordinate on large renewable energy projects in California.
‚ÄúThe goal from a planning perspective,‚ÄĚ Douglas said, ‚Äúis to streamline the process on renewable energy and conservation that also recognizes the impact on communities, while shortening the time to give approvals and lessen costs.‚ÄĚ
Douglas, making a comment that would be heard repeatedly throughout the meeting, went on to caution the audience that the draft plan will be a very different document from the final plan. She explained that the plan is a very complicated, but much-needed approach to energy planning.
The DRECP website was mentioned repeatedly as the best source of current information and mapping, for everyone from the public to those charged with the planning. All of those involved in development of the plan from public agencies at the local, state and federal levels and the public will be able to view the most current maps and related information with the ability to provide ongoing comments.
Jim Kenna, the state director for the Bureau of Land Management, stressed that this is a very long-term process lasting until 2040, with the state‚Äôs goal of 20,000 megawatts as a baseline. Explaining the ever-increasing need for renewable energy, Kenna noted that the permanent closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Plant represents a huge loss of energy capacity, as does the closure of another power plant, Mojave Power Station, which used coal and was shut down primarily due to economics and environmental concerns.
Kenna noted that energy issues are ‚Äúcomplex with many moving parts,‚ÄĚ such as an aging infrastructure, climate change, natural gas concerns and emergent technologies.
The BLM is amending its Land Use Plans covering all the public lands under its jurisdiction in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service‚Äôs general wildlife and habitat plan will also be included as part of the planning process as well as the California Natural Community Conservation Plan. The latter covers conservation on more than 11 million acres with the general purpose of addressing the creation, transmission and storage of renewable energy while respecting environmental concerns such as working around 50 endangered species and around 30 natural communities.
The DRECP‚Äôs goal is to develop an efficient and effective biological mitigation and conservation program giving renewable project developers greater certainty over the timing of permits and costs associated with renewable energy programs under the federal and California Endangered Species Acts. Preserving, restoring and enhancing natural communities and related ecosystems is also the goal. It is a ‚Äúbig,‚ÄĚ all-encompassing plan and in another comment heard throughout the meeting, the ‚Äúdevil is in the details.‚ÄĚ
Time was set aside for those attending to visit various tables around the room, ask questions and provide feedback.
While the public overwhelmingly supports solar energy and other types of renewable energy, there are those who support it but wish for it to be done somewhere else other than around their community. Some local residents fear the loss of scenic views and question the loss of even more water from Inyo County as the result of renewable solar energy plants.
Independence resident Jim Stroh shared with those at the meeting a Campbell-Stokes recorder which features a glass sphere that is used to record the hours of bright sunshine during the day. When asked his opinion on local solar energy projects, he said, ‚ÄúI am in favor of the proposed Los Angeles Department of Water and Power‚Äôs solar ranch adjacent to Manzanar.‚ÄĚ
Not everyone shares that opinion. Many are still undecided or neutral on the subject. Dick Noles of Bishop and also the president of Advocates for Access to Public Lands said he is neutral on the subject and his main concern is that public access to public land is not threatened.
April Zrelak of Independence wondered just how the DRECP will be actually used in making decisions on renewable energy projects, saying, ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt generally favor large solar arrays, although I have no problem with them in brown fields, but I do not want to see them in pristine, open land.‚ÄĚ She went on to say that she felt greater energy conservation efforts and attention to distributive energy sources such as rooftop solar panels should be made, lessening the need for very large industrial solar energy plants.
Nina Weisman of Independence also felt strongly that ‚Äúwe should not use undisturbed land for large renewable energy projects.‚ÄĚ She is worried that the state‚Äôs plan might mistakenly allow too many solar plants which will threaten local tourism and the environment. She also supports greater distributive energy sources over large industrial renewable plants.
Distributive energy sources such as rooftop solar panels have been shown to be more efficient than large industrial plants, however the utility companies counter that rooftop solar panels have mainly been adopted by wealthy customers and without subsidies, they are too expensive for many middle class customers. Some also argue that distributive energy sources threaten the economic underpinning of large utilities which is based on mass distribution and shared costs, which they claim keep the cost of energy down for everyone.
Earl Wilson of Lone Pine expressed concern over what appeared to be potential new transmission lines shown on the maps in the room. He said he is concerned about towers, mirrors and mills.
Commissioner Douglas responded that the transmission analysis was done by technical specialists from different utilities to make a determination on how much transmission capacity would be needed in any approved area based on what it was capable of producing. It is just another feasibility tool to be combined with others that will assist in decision making.
Alan Babcock of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe asked if there are plans looking at urban areas with regard to expansions of distributive energy. The response from Douglas was, yes ‚Äď the state has been looking at urban areas, noting, ‚ÄúThe scale of the problem in climate change is really large. Retail energy use, shifting transportation, backing off coal plants, loss of two nuclear plants; all have us looking at everything. Why the desert, many ask? Most of the population lives close to the coasts and foggy coasts are generally not suitable to solar and land is also very expensive.‚ÄĚ
For more information, to stay abreast of the progress and to offer comments on the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, visit www.drecp.org.