Desert Renewable Energy Planning Process Gets Underway

By Published On: March 26, 2010

Renewable energy companies developing solar and wind projects in California’s desert could clear habitat conservation requirements in one or two days--compared to the years it takes today. The acceleration depends on the state’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan process working out as hoped, according to the planning process leader. State, federal, and local agencies with jurisdiction over land in seven Southern California counties are convening to forge consensus on desert management, director Robert Copper said at the Governor’s March 24 Renewable Energy Conference in Riverside. About 500 people crowded into an auditorium at the University of California campus to meet almost non-stop for six hours. The intergovernmental group aims to develop enough scientific knowledge about desert ecology to develop a master plan for mitigating the impacts of a growing crush of giant renewable energy projects slated for the sunny, windy, arid region. The planning process is expected to take two to three years. The desert coalition held its first meeting March 23. Copper said the goal is to allow developers to simply pay fees to public agencies to mitigate the impacts of their projects and conserve the region’s fragile desert ecological system. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger--who called for the desert planning process last year--authorized payment of mitigation fees when he signed renewable energy project permit streamlining legislation this week (see story above). Copper suggested government agencies may wind up using the money to purchase private land to carry out ecological restoration projects. This would eliminate the need for each project developer to study impacts on wildlife and design a custom mitigation plan, Copper continued. An aide to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said her California Desert Protection Act of 2010 (S 2911) would provide state and local agencies additional money to address conservation programs as renewable energy projects are developed. The bill would earmark 25 percent of the lease payments project operators pay to use federal land to host state governments and 25 percent to host counties, said Feinstein aide, Chris Carrillo. In addition, her bill would establish a federal mitigation bank into which developers could make deposits to fund mitigation work. The move toward master planning in the desert comes as developers are pursuing some 238 renewable energy projects in California. If built, they would produce more than 67,000 MW of power, said Michael Picker, senior renewable energy advisor to Schwarzenegger. He suggested California could become a net exporter of renewable energy to neighboring states in the decades ahead. Meanwhile, state officials conceded the desert planning process may not help expedite the first projects. But they maintained that as the state looks to “de-carbonize” its economy by 2050 under its global warming bill, AB 32, the planning effort should ease the way.

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