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California's Solar Land Rush Intensifies

Posted by Morgan Miles Craft On 12:54 PM

The Race is on to Land Solar Projects across Eastern Riverside and San Bernardino Counties

by Morgan Craft

   Interior Secretary Ken Salalzar’s recent visit to the Coachella Valley put national focus on the proposed mass development of solar energy in eastern Riverside and San Bernardino counties. “We have set aside 1,000 square miles of public lands in 24 Solar Energy Study Areas that the Department and BLM are evaluating for solar energy development across the West,” Salazar said. “If developed, these tracts could generate nearly 100,000 megawatts of solar electricity.”

(Click image to enlarge)

   To highlight the point, the Interior Department has opened a California Renewable Energy Coordination Office (RECO), right in Palm Springs. “These offices in California, along with our renewable permitting teams in six other western states, will help to swiftly complete application reviews on the most ready-to-go and environmentally appropriate solar, wind, and geothermal projects on U.S. public lands,” says Salazar. The streamlined review and approval process would take one year, instead of the usual three to four years.
   The Green Technology Institute calls the Southern California desert the “Saudi Arabia of green power,” and advocates all who believe in green energy to participate in “California’s green gold rush” taking place right here, right now. Riding the wave of the State Bill 107 mandate that requires 33% of our state’s electricity to be produced using renewable sources by 2020, utilities and solar power developers are wanting to know where they can build, and how soon. There’s a huge motivator: projects that are able to break ground by December 1, 2010, qualify for a portion of $15 billion in Recovery Act money that has been earmarked for alternative energy development. (Click to read full story)

   The Bureau of Land Management reports applications for 75 separate projects in its California Desert District alone, and in the last year has seen a 78% rise in the number of applications nationwide, up to 223. Nearly half are in California. A total of 2.3 million acres of BLM land is under consideration. Some prime parcels, those nearest to transmission lines, are seeing multiple bids, with hungry developers waiting in the wings for other companies to fail. Though now on the “fast tack”, the path to producing energy is long, and fraught with expensive hurdles and state and federal reviews.
   And the military is getting into the game, with Clark Energy Group and Acciona Solar Power planning to build 500 megawatts of photovoltaic and solar thermal power projects on 14,000 acres at Fort Irwin, to reduce their energy purchases, and then sell the excess electricity to utilities. The process to get it built would have significantly fewer hurdles.
   Beginning in 2010, Tessera Solar hopes to break ground on two of the world’s largest solar plants – both in the Southern California desert. The Calico Solar One (which will funnel power to So. Cal Edison from near US 40) and Imperial Valley Solar Two (for PG&E San Diego) projects will each utilize 64,000 individual panels, and together produce 1740 megawatts of electricity, on 8200 and 6500 acres of land. That’s 10 and 12 square miles, respectively. Tessera predicts it will produce electricity to the grid with these projects in the second quarter of 2011.
   Brightsource Energy is proposing 3 separate solar concentrating thermal power plants to be built on nearly 6 square miles near Ivanpah, just west of the Nevada border, which will produce 440 megawatts. They project adding their megawatts to the hungry grid by 2012. The project still awaits permit approvals from the state Energy Commission and the federal Bureau of Land Management, and is being vehemently contested by environmentalists.    Another Brightsource project, Broadwell, located on lands between Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve, was scuttled in September, largely due to strong local opposition and the efforts of Senator Diane Feinstein, who is proposing the land be designated as a national preserve.
   With the state and federal government mandates to develop large-scale alternative energy, and with prime BLM tracts on the solar developers’ radar, huge swaths of land directly to our east are hungrily being eyed for a slew of projects. Ironically, a significant portion of the BLM land under consideration was a gift from the Wildlands Conservancy, which donated to BLM old railroad-owned land it purchased, totaling 240,000 acres, in the desert corridor running from Barstow to Arizona. The BLM claims it never promised to conserve the land, that it was donated for “public use”, and that only 8 percent of the donated land is under consideration. That land is now some of the most valuable solar development land on earth, the BLM says, and solar is now high on the list of desirable public uses.
    Salazar and Interior have identified two significant Solar Energy Study Areas on public land in eastern Riverside and San Bernardino counties. One, dubbed Riverside East, begins at Desert Center, in the Chuckwalla Valley and along Interstate 10 to Blythe, and another at Iron Mountain, along Route 62 east of Twentynine Palms. According to Basin and Range Watch, a desert-based watchdog group, a total of twenty-one separate applications have been filed for solar energy projects within the study areas that would cover 349 square miles.
    While it seems expedient to place these massive solar arrays in the sparsely-populated eastern deserts of California, not everyone is embracing the prospect. Strong opposition to the proposed projects is coming from community groups, watchdog organizations, and environmentalists. Donna Charpied, a well-known local activist who was instrumental in the fight to keep the abandoned Kaiser Steel mine turned into a landfill, and who has a farm in the Chuckwalla Valley, calls it “nothing less than a misguided energy policy being fueled by industry and ‘envirocrats’.”
   The Center for Biological Diversity proposes utilizing instead the over 200,000 acres of “degraded” private and public land in the region that would be better suited to large-scale solar development, with less environmental impact. Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center says, “There are tens of thousands of acres of already-disturbed lands in the California desert that are much closer to cities and towns that would make far more sense for this kind of project. While rapidly transitioning to renewable energy is essential, we need not sacrifice public lands and rare species to do so.”
   It should be noted that both the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have publicly supported the development of large scale solar, though these positions have caused some in their organizations to break ranks. Detractors, like the Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy, based in Joshua Tree, argue that much of our solar needs could be met by making rooftop solar more accessible. Rooftop generation and installations on previously developed land are much less destructive than utility-scale, long distance energy projects which create permanent environmental losses, they claim.
   According to AREP director Jim Harvey, “Salazar is misguided in his push to expand the 19th century model of remote generation and the vulnerable transmission lines needed to move the power into population centers. As a nation, we should instead be focusing on renewable energy generation at its point of use. Democratizing energy generation to finally include home and business owners is the key to fast, clean, and inexpensive renewable energy supplies. Salazar and this administration are simply catering to the Big Energy lobby at the expense of consumers and property owners.”
   To that end, California in 2006 adopted the Million Solar Roofs initiative, with the goal of making rooftop and small-scale solar affordable. Its goal is one million new solar installations in the state by 2017. Last year, the legislature passed AB 1451, which renews an existing exclusion from property taxes for the value of solar energy systems, as well as AB 811, which allows homeowners to finance the installation of renewable energy through low-interest loans that would be repaid as an item on the property owner's property tax bill.
   In November, Governor Schwarzenegger signed bills AB 920 and SB 32, which provide further incentives for residential and industrial rooftop solar, by allowing them to be paid for unused energy going back into the grid. Leasing rooftop solar systems is also gaining steam, with some systems available for only $100 a month.
   The effect of these initiatives and industry trends have yet to be felt on a large scale, however, as roofs in the sunny desert remain conspicuously uncovered. Furthermore, supporters of large-array solar say that it will take decades to install the number of rooftop-based systems necessary to make a significant impact, and 2020 looms on the horizon.
   With development of renewable energy sources a prime objective of our nation, our state, and our communities, finding the balance between hundreds of square miles of solar arrays, maintaining the pristine desert environment, and how to be part of the solution is now going to be a fast-moving story.

Pending Solar Company Applications:

Iron Mountain Study Area (76,211 total acres/119 square miles):

Leopold Companies (43,985 acres)
Boulevard Associates (709 acres)
Ewindfarm, Inc. (two projects - 12,960 acres and 18,557 acres)

Riverside East Study Area (147,456 total acres/230 square miles):

Solar Millenium (3,691 acres, 3,101 acres, and 8,626 acres)
Optisolar (First Solar) (14,742 acres and 7,237 acres)
Genesis - McCoy (7,753 acres)
Chuckwalla (4,091 acres)
NextEra Genesis (4,436 acres)
Altera (8,703 acres and 6,618 acres)
enXco (2,065 acres)
enXco - Ford Dry Lake (15,921 acres)
enXco - Ford Dry Lake (20,604 acres)
enXco 1 (1,051 acres)
Solel - McCoy (8,589 acres)
Solel - Desert Lily (7,384 acres)
Bullfrog - Maria Vista (22,844 acres)

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