New federal rules for California desert put too many prime wind energy sites off-limits

Today, modern wind technology and siting techniques allow American wind power to both cut emissions and preserve lands and wildlife. It’s a big reason why the U.S. wind energy industry has gained recognition for its legacy of care.

However, a new plan released today by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), focusing on a vast resource area that offers many prime sites for renewable energy growth in Southern California, outlines a different approach to balancing environmental impact with renewable energy development: a system of “no-go” zones, which threatens to lock up most of the promising sites for wind energy for decades.

The plan, called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), states a planning goal of 20,000 megawatts (MW) of new renewable energy, yet is expected to dramatically limit the amount of new renewable energy growth in Southern California.

The plan presents a challenge and it has the potential to cause some headaches as both President Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown have laid out goals to reduce carbon pollution from the energy sector – that includes targets for California to obtain 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2030.

The DRECP planning area is vast – 22 million acres. But, while the BLM plan provides nine million acres for conservation and recreation, it provides less than 400,000 acres for renewable energy exploration, and will allow a maximum of just 121,000 acres for actual renewable energy development.

The plan puts approximately three million acres that had been available for solar and wind development completely off- limits. The limited area for renewable energy provided for by BLM will therefore make it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the planning goal of 20,000 MW of renewable energy.

That’s because, while the draft proposal assumes that “development focus areas” (DFAs) on private land will account for about 75% of total DFA acreage, county governments have shown little inclination in their DRECP-related planning efforts to host utility-scale wind and solar projects. Indeed, Los Angeles County has tentatively approved a prohibition on wind energy, while the draft DRECP envisioned that nearly 1,000 MW of wind energy would be developed there.

Alameda, Contra Costa, Kern, Riverside, Solano, and other California counties already host 6,000 MW of wind turbine capacity, which now supplies 6.5 percent of the state’s homegrown electricity. That has contributed to the more than $11 billion dollars in capital investment attracted to the state’s economy by wind. It’s also why wind supports up to 3,000 jobs across the state, provides $70 million in annual property tax revenues to local governments, and pays California landowners $17.8 million dollars a year in lease payments for hosting wind turbines.

The wind industry has been actively involved in the eight-year DRECP planning process, and has highlighted the best wind resources suitable for development while maintaining low environmental impacts.

However, the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA) estimates that the plan eliminates about 80 percent of the best wind energy resources on BLM lands in California, which are in fact the most suitable remaining wind resources available in all of California. CalWEA also estimates that the proposal will, at best, result in 1,000 MW of wind capacity.  Nevertheless, approximately 7,000 MW of wind in a portfolio of roughly 19,000 MW of new sources of renewable energy are needed for the state to cost-effectively meet its goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030.

The new approach presented by the DRECP definitely presents a challenge – one that the U.S. wind energy industry, federal and state officials will need to work on together.

The primary challenge arises from two different approaches to wind energy development and conservation — the zoning go, no-go approach within the DRECP, and the tiered, risk-based approach called for in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services voluntary guidelines for land based wind energy that are followed by wind energy developers.

First, the DRECP adopts an approach with a rigid design that doesn’t allow for future advancements that, over time, could further reduce wind energy’s already low environmental impacts. Progress in technology and siting are expected to show that wind energy and wildlife and habitat conservation can coexist in areas that today are permanently considered “no-go” areas by the DRECP.

Second, the DRECP’s new zoning determinations are also based on high-level analysis and, in many cases, with large data gaps and a lack of site-specific information. Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t allow the flexibility needed for wind developers to access the best wind resources and avoid the most sensitive locations using the existing tiered siting approach already outlined in the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Wind Energy Guidelines.

American wind power has worked for years alongside mainstream conservation organizations that support developing wind power because of the role it plays in mitigating the negative effects of climate change – the greatest threat to all wildlife and our society.

As an example of this collaboration, various wind energy developers working with leaders in the conservation community formed the American Wind Wildlife Institute (AWWI), whose mission is “[to] facilitate timely and responsible development of wind energy while protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat.”

This approach has helped make the U.S. number one in the world in wind energy production while also having the lowest impact on the environment when compared to all other sources of electricity in the U.S.

That’s why the wind industry looks forward to continuing to work with state and federal agencies, and environmental groups, on landscape-level efforts in order to harmonize these two approaches to better strike the right balance between development and environmental protection.

That balance is essential if we are to successfully cut carbon pollution and meet California’s, and the nation’s, ambitious goals for renewable energy.

This guest blog is authored by Nancy Rader, Executive Director of CalWEA, and Tom Darin, Western State Policy Director, AWEA