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Monday, December 21, 2009

Feinstein strikes a blow against renewable energy

Setting up a fight with Governor Schwarzenegger, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) today introduced legislation to restrict development on more than 1.3 million acres of the Mojave Desert. (WSJ says 1.7 million). The proposed legislation would create two new national monuments, national wilderness and extend two existing national parks.

Fights over the appropriate use of the California desert are as old as the modern environmental movement — at least 40 years. The fight has traditionally been to protect flora, fauna and their associated habitat from traditional enemies such as military tanks (at the sprawling Army’s Fort Irwin and the Marine’s Twentynine Palms bases) and off-road vehicles.

However, what’s new is that these proposed restrictions are aimed squarely at using the California desert for renewable energy generation. With few clouds, southerly latitudes (35°-36° North), and located 50-100 miles from downtown LA, the Mojave is ideally situated for providing solar power for the 13 million people in metropolitan Los Angeles, as well as the larger five-county Greater Los Angeles that holds half the state’s population.

It is thus not surprising that America’s first significant utility-scale solar energy plant — the Kramer Junction Solar Electric Generating System — was developed in the Mojave more than 20 years ago. In addition to this 165 MW solar thermal facility, a new 553 MW facility is planned by the same operators to sell renewable energy to PG&E.

Other parts of the Mojave are well suited for wind energy. The Tehachapis (at the west end of the Mojave) are one of California’s two major wind energy producing regions, along with the Altamont Pass east of Oakland.

Some might wonder whether renewable energy is an unintended victim of restrictions aimed at off-road vehicles, but public statements in the LA Times report make it clear that the damage is quite intentional:
During a tour of the area Sunday, David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, scrambled up a rocky hill at the base of a row of snaggletoothed mountains freckled with clumps of brittlebush.

"Heroic country, isn't it?" he said. "Just a few months ago, there were plans to cover this entire landscape with solar and wind farms. Instead, with this legislation, we are striking a balance with the insatiable demands of population growth."
Establishing a national monument or wilderness is one of the most bureaucratic approaches that could be imagined to restrict renewable energy development: it’s not “striking a balance,” but slamming on the brakes. With the Federal protections in place, environmentalists will be able to delay or block renewable energy development for years if not decades.

California has told utilities they need to buy one third of the state’s electricity from renewable power sources by 2020. Thus the state has the proper motivation to strike a balance between two competing environmental goals — carbon-free energy production and habitat protection — in the way the Feds never will.

It would have been nice if California could have created its own state park in this region to mediate such a balance. However, that approach might have suffered the same problem as the federalization of the Mojave. Last summer, the legislature passed SB 679 (vetoed by Gov. Schwarzenegger) which would have required any land taken for non-park use be replaced by additional land — also discouraging use of the land for renewable power generation. As the governor wrote in his veto message:
Under existing law, the Director of Parks … may sell, exchange, and acquire State Park property deemed necessary for the extension, improvement, or development of the State Park system. Whether it is roads, water and energy infrastructure, or areas necessary for the installation of renewable energy facilities, maintaining the flexibility of the current process is absolutely necessary as the state continues to strive to meet its infrastructure needs for a growing population.
Up until this point, the interests of wildlife environmentalists and global warming environmentalists have usually been aligned, with rare exceptions like birds dying in the Altamont Pass windmills. These two sets of competing values — habitat protection vs. renewable energy production — need to be reconciled through open debate and our public policy process. I think the proper place to do so is at the state level, not in Washington DC. California has a proud record of being at the forefront of the environmental movement for more than a century (think John Muir).

Utility scale solar power stations will be an essential part of any realistic effort to achieve the mandate of 33% Renewable Portfolio Standard energy by 2020. Such an effort — harnessing private industry to replace fossil fuels burned every day to support our society — is more concrete than all the hot air spewed by so-called “green” politicians over the past decade. Saying you support restrictions on greenhouse gasses and renewable energy but blocking renewable energy development is dissembling even by the low standards of career politicians.

Update 4:30pm: The actual map released by Sen. Feinstein today makes it clear that most of the area being restricted is on the Eastern edge of the state. (The exception is the proposed “Sand to Snow National Monument” (an odd name) west of Joshua Tree, which seems to include ridgeline land that could be a potentially valuable wind generation region just north of the existing Palm Springs wind farm.)

The proposed national wilderness and the Mojave Trails National Monument border the Mojave National Preserve and the east side of Fort Irwin, including plots of sunny land near major electric transmission lines. As the WSJ reports:
The Mojave is particularly attractive because it not only offers nearly uninterrupted days of bright sunshine in a sparsely populated area, but lies near a major electric-transmission corridor from California to Nevada.
In addition to the I-15 corridor to Nevada, the restrictions would overlap the I-40 and Route 66 corridors to Arizona. If, as the WSJ notes, a major environmental concern for large renewable energy plants is building new roads to access the plants, then the corridors along these three national highways should be a high priority for energy development.

We’ll see how “balanced” this proposal is when we hear from the governor and electric utilities. My guess that solar entrepreneurs will be too scared to openly oppose the Feds, in case the legislation passes and they have to beg the Feds for the right to develop in one of the national monuments.

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