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Big challenges for big solar in California's deserts

The sun rises over the Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Dunes or American Sahara, on July 20, 2003 near Glamis, California in the Colorado Desert between Brawley, California and Yuma, Arizona.
David McNew/Getty Images
The sun rises over the Algodones Dunes, also known as the Imperial Dunes or American Sahara, on July 20, 2003 near Glamis, California in the Colorado Desert between Brawley, California and Yuma, Arizona.

In 2005, an energy law gave federal interior officials 10 years to line up 10,000 megawatts of power on public lands. Little happened in the first few years after that law was passed. Then Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the fast-tracking of a few select renewable energy projects in mid-2009.

“These projects are milestones in our focused effort to rapidly and responsibly capture renewable energy resources on public lands,” Salazar said in signing decisions for the initiatives. “These projects advance the president’s agenda for stimulating investment in cutting-edge technology, creating jobs for American workers and promoting clean energy for American homes, businesses and industry.”

"Fast-track" solar hasn't moved that fast – just a few months ago the first of these projects gained go-aheads. The environmental assessment process has taken 18-24 months.

There are still fewer than a dozen in California, Nevada and Arizona. But with several projects now breaking ground, Californians are looking close at wind and solar projects, where they're sited and what impacts they'll have.

Seven large-scale solar projects in California have approval from state and federal authorities. With them, private companies plan to bring nearly 3,500 megawatts to the energy grid. Another 600-plus megawatts could see approval before year's end.

Desert conservationists count the cost of these projects, and they do it in different numbers than those touted by public officials: the acreage they cover. Large-scale solar will occupy 30,000 acres of disturbed, sort of disturbed and undisturbed desert.

According to its website, the Bureau of Land Management is considering 45 applications now within the Golden State, over a total of 405,000 acres. People concerned about the possible impact of large scale solar on desert ecosystems say the way these first projects are handled is significant because of the precedent they set for future work.

In November, a group of desert-area residents and other Southern Californians who spend time in wild places met to talk strategy for opposing these projects in Palm Springs. Together they see in the desert something that others don't.

"Seventy years ago there was a fella who started a magazine called the Desert Magazine and his lead editorial was 'There Are Two Deserts.' And in the first one everything sticks, or bites and it's hot and you want to get out of there as quick as you can," Los Angeles resident, engineer and desert activist Tom Budlong says. "And then the second one is where people have actually stopped for a while and looked at the desert and looked under the bushes and looked at the flowers and have gone out there when it's not so terribly hot and realized that there is really an awful lot out there to appreciate. It's a fascinating place, and to go out there and destroy it, square mile at a time, is really difficult."

Terry Weiner, too, describes herself as a desert rat – someone who would rather be in the desert than anywhere else just about all the time. "That means summertime too." She says the desert's been a dumping ground – a place where people do things that they don't want next to their cities. "The desert has always had a lot of demands made upon it and it has become fragmented," she says.

She and other desert activists believe global warming is a serious problem that should be addressed. They believe renewable energy is a worthy goal. And they decry urban supporters of renewable energy who don't want solar panels on their houses.

"We are NIMBYs, of a sort," Terry Weiner says. "But we are more like, yes in our backyards, not in the public's backyards. We want solar in our backyards, and on our rooftops."

Desert activists are supportive of the work of federal and state authorities toward framework systems in which to judge future solar and wind sites. Weiner and others have founded a group called Solar Done Right. They want federal and state officials to improve energy efficiency programs and to build more solar on urban rooftops instead of fast tracking solar on public lands.

The federal government's massive set of guidelines is called the Solar Energy Development Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement. Released just last week, it's a proposed framework to guide projects in six states to 24 solar zones. (After 90 days of public comment, it'll be finalized next year.)

The California Energy Commission takes specific authority over solar thermal projects larger than 50 megawatts. In addition, California and federal authorities have assembled a working group to write the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for the Mojave and Colorado desert regions.

Budlong objects to a program sponsored by the Department of Energy that provides loan guarantees for these large projects. "So if the project fails, who is on the dock for it, it's the taxpayers, not the person who paid the money. It's like you co-signing for a loan for your son, you know? He's a deadbeat, but you're willing to take the risk," he says. "So, we are taking the risk."

So what's the rush? Two factors drive these projects' development. One is the state's renewable portfolio standard. California's mandated that utilities derive 33 percent of their energy from renewable sources within 10 years.

The other is federal funding. A program that provides cash grants of up to 30 percent of a project's cost is set to expire at year's end. Projects have until September of 2011 to qualify for loan guarantees offered under the ARRA. Two federal laws now – the 2005 Energy Act, and the 2009 Recovery Act – value faster development of desert solar.

The California Energy Commission's Karen Douglas says the process of siting solar in the desert so far hasn't been perfect. "I think it was a tremendous opportunity for the state to have the recovery act provide incentive for renewable energy, and to have projects that were in the permitting process that were ready to go and to be able to evaluate those projects."

Douglas says it's also been a tremendous learning experience, most significantly in terms of where the projects can go. "Now that we're moving into the next phase of this we really have to watch how this works out in the mitigation, and the compliance and the construction of the projects that have been permitted, and we really have to focus on the long-term planning effort."