Why Solar Developers Aren’t Happy with the Desert Renewable Energy Plan

September 15, 2016, 7:38 AM UTC
Aerial Views Of First Solar's Desert Sunlight Solar Farm
Solar panels are seen in this aerial photograph of First Solar Inc.'s Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Mojave Desert, California, U.S., on Friday, April 5, 2013. First Solar Inc., the largest thin-film panel manufacturer, sees “significant growth” in renewable energy projects being developed in the Middle East and North Africa by the end of 2014. Photographer: Tim Rue/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tim Rue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The United States on Wednesday unveiled a long-awaited plan for desert renewable energy development that the solar and wind industries said unfairly favors land conservation and severely limits the ability to build projects critical to meeting the nation’s climate goals.

The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, eight years in the making, was designed to streamline development of wind and solar projects on federal and private lands in California while preserving pristine desert habitats.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Interior unveiled the first phase of the plan, covering 10.8 million acres of federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It designates 388,000 acres of those lands as best for renewable energy development. Applications for projects in those areas will receive a streamlined permitting process and possible financial incentives, the agency said in a press release.

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A coalition of five wind and solar energy trade groups said the size of the area set aside for development in the plan falls far short of what California and the United States will need to meet carbon reduction goals.

“It’s just a complete disconnect with our climate change ambitions,” said Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association.

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Environmentalists cheered the move, saying it struck the right balance between preserving wildlife and plant habitats and allowing for ample wind and solar development.

The desert is not the only place to site renewable energy, said Sierra Club Senior Representative Barbara Boyle, who pointed to efforts to develop projects on private lands in rural areas as well as import renewable energy from other states.

“The California desert is just one piece of the puzzle, and we believe that this is more than enough acreage.”

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Wind and solar developers worry that much of the 388,000 acres set aside for them will not actually make sense for their projects. The areas have not yet been cleared for potential conflicts with military exercises and have yet to be surveyed for impacts to avian species.

The government also has imposed new environmental restrictions on those areas that will drive up the cost of development, according to Christopher Mansour, vice president of federal affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association.

“The BLM has chosen to greatly restrict the where we develop, and also restricted the how we can develop these projects,” Mansour said.

The BLM said another 400,000 acres could be considered for renewable energy development.