Feds Pressured to Sculpt Public Land Renewables

By Published On: February 22, 2013

The federal agency that permits alternative energy projects on public lands, including in the Southern California desert, is scaling back one large in-state wind project. It also is facing a lawsuit to reorient its much larger master plan for sprawling solar developments towards brownfields in California and five other states. The Bureau of Land Management trimmed down a proposed wind farm in Kern County to protect desert tortoises and golden eagles Feb. 15. In its final Environmental Impact Statement, the federal land agency's preferred alternative reduces the capacity of the Alta Wind Power project to 291 MW from 318 MW. The amount of public land to host project wind turbines was decreased from 2,024 acres to 1,705 acres in southeastern Kern County. The purpose of this alternative is to analyze a proportional reduction in potential biological resources impacts (including impacts to desert tortoise) as a result of the reduced level of construction and permanent habitat loss associated with this footprint,” states the environmental impact analysis. It also curbs the number of turbines to 97 from 120, with the goal also of protecting threatened birds and Joshua tree habitat. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimated that in 2009 wind turbines killed 440,000 birds nationwide. In California, the impact of wind turbines on golden eagles is of particular concern. The Department of Interior issued voluntary bird guidelines for new land-based wind power projects in March 2012 after three years of study (Current, March 30, 2012). None of the project alternatives for the Alta Wind proposal affect the 568 acres of private land expected to be used for housing turbines. In addition to the recent revision of its single wind project environmental analysis, the federal land agency's Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for large-scale solar development across the West landed in court only a few days earlier. Issued in July 2012, the contentious federal policy prioritizes solar energy developments on public lands in California and five other states in the Southwest. The top solar energy zones identified in the plan cover 285,000 acres. Of those, half are in California. Another 19 million acres of land in the six states are considered suitable for development under specified conditions (Current, July 27, 2012). A trio of conservation groups charge in a complaint filed Feb. 12 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California that the Bureau of Land Management and former Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar “failed to properly define the purpose and need for the proposed plan amendments and failed to review a reasonable range of alternatives to the proposal. The agency "too narrowly" defined its focus, they assert. The San Diego-based Desert Protective Council, Western Watersheds, and Western Land Project allege that the federal agency's umbrella impact analysis--a blueprint for development ground rules for 17 “solar energy zones--violates the National Environmental Policy Act and California Environmental Quality Act. They want the massive report voided. During development of the analysis, the conservation groups urged that the solar development zones focus on disturbed lands, including abandoned mines, fallow farms, and other brownfields. They also called for solar projects that feed into lower-voltage transmission and more centralized distribution lines, in place of proposed remote, large-scale utility solar facilities. The specific environmental impact analysis for the Alta Wind project alone is subject to a 30-day public protest period. After that, the final decision is to be filed in the Federal Register. This wind project is one of the deals folded into a master power purchase agreement Southern California Edison signed in December 2006 for 1,550 MW of wind energy from the Tehachapi planning area between 2010 and 2015.

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