Biden approves two solar farms in the California desert

The Interior Department on Tuesday gave the green light to two massive solar farms in the California desert — a reminder that the Biden administration still has tools to fight climate change even if it fails to pass the president’s Build Back Better bill .

The two solar arrays could eventually cover 2,700 acres in Riverside County, an hour’s drive east of Palm Springs and south of Joshua Tree National Park. Federal officials say they would generate enough electricity to power about 132,000 California homes.

That energy would help keep the lights on after dark, with the developer also building a range of lithium-ion batteries.

A third solar farm in the same area, which the Biden administration is expected to approve soon, would bring total clean power generation at the new facilities to nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar power and 900 megawatts of four-hour battery storage.

Permitting renewable energy installations on public lands is no substitute for national climate legislation when it comes to how much pollution could be avoided. But these projects can still replace fossil fuels — and they don’t need the approval of Senate Republicans or Democratic Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who blocked Build Back Better.

“It is imperative that we go as far as we can with clean energy,” Home Secretary Deb Haaland said in an interview.

At the same time, the new solar farms are a reminder that the transition to renewable energy — while urgently needed to contain the worsening wildfires and deadlier heatwaves of the climate crisis — comes with its own environmental challenges.

Across the American West, conservation groups and tribes are increasingly concerned about the potential of solar, wind, and geothermal power plants to destroy sensitive wildlife habitats and disrupt sacred landscapes. Federal officials are grappling with these concerns as they seek to meet a congressional goal of allowing 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025, while also allowing 30% of the country’s land and oceans by 2030 as part of Biden’s “30 by 30.” protect ” initiative.

Nowhere is the tension between environmental protection and clean energy more evident than in California’s Riverside County, where half a dozen large solar farms are already operating or under construction, and many more are planned. Vast, sunny, undeveloped expanses of land between the Coachella Valley and the Arizona state line have attracted developers for more than a decade.

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Riverside County.

The 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in Riverside County.

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times)

Riverside County eventually became a model for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which state and federal officials felt was needed to resolve the conflict between development and conservation. The plan, finalized in the last few months of the Obama administration, earmarked several hundred thousand acres of state land in California for clean energy projects. It protected millions more in hopes of preserving wilderness areas for desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, and other species.

The newly approved Arica and Victory Pass solar farms are the first projects to receive the green light under the desert plan. Haaland told the Times she sees the plan as a model for other western states as more solar and wind installations are proposed for public land.

“It really requires a close look at conservation,” she said. “They are doing what they can to make sure these species are protected.”

But just because two projects have been approved does not mean, from the solar industry’s point of view, that the desert plan will work.

For every facility that gets federal approval, “there are projects that don’t even get proposed because it’s so difficult to navigate,” said Shannon Eddy, executive director of Large-scale Solar Assn., a Sacramento-based trade group . She said the “conservation management measures” in the desert plan, which require companies to take measures to reduce the environmental impact of their projects, are so restrictive that companies sometimes cannot even build in designated development zones.

For example, in Imperial County in far southeastern California — another windy, sun-drenched mecca for renewable energy developers — Eddy said only 11,000 acres out of 53,000 acres earmarked for clean energy are realistically usable for solar energy.

“It’s difficult to find areas to actually place projects in,” she said.

As to illustrate this point, the Center for Biological Diversity has raised concerns about Arica and Victory Pass. Though both solar farms would be built in areas earmarked for clean energy, they would still disrupt sand dunes that provide homes to Mojave tassel-toed lizards, as well as an important connection corridor for wildlife, the center said.

But in a victory for state and federal officials, the conservation group doesn’t oppose Arica or Victory Pass.

“They corresponded to what the [desert plan] created,” said Ileene Anderson, a researcher at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The two solar farms are being developed by San Francisco-based Clearway Energy Group, which plans to begin construction of the first phase of each facility next year. The company has contracts to sell power to four state electric utilities — including the Clean Power Alliance in Los Angeles and Ventura counties — and PepsiCo.

The projects could eventually include 465 megawatts of solar power and 400 megawatts of battery storage, providing “clean, reliable, and affordable power when California needs it most,” Clearway executive Julia Zuckerman said in an email.

The Rosamond Central Solar Farm in Kern County.

Esworth Carty, regional maintenance manager for Clearway Energy Group, shows off solar panels at the 192-megawatt Rosamond Central solar farm in Kern County, California, in February.

(Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Conservationists have been louder in protest at the third solar farm being touted by the Biden administration, known as Oberon.

In a September letter, a coalition that included the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club criticized the Bureau of Land Management for proposing an exception to the desert plan that would allow the project’s developer to destroy a few dozen acres of microphyll forest, where ironwood and palo verde trees grow along ephemeral streams that flow during the monsoons, feeding mammals and migratory birds. Anderson called these areas “the veins of the desert.”

But most of the groups that signed the letter reached an informal agreement with Oberon’s developer, Intersect Power, on Tuesday. In exchange for the company pulling out of the desert forests in most places, conservation groups agreed not to oppose the solar farm — provided the changes are approved by federal officials.

“This project represents one of the largest habitat reduction efforts of any energy development project in California history and is a great example of how clean energy and environmental protection go hand-in-hand,” Intersect spokesman McKinley Doty said in an email .

For some conservation groups focused on protecting wildlife habitats and undisturbed landscapes, large solar and wind farms are almost always problematic. They’d much rather see solar panels on rooftops, warehouses and parking lots — and they’re furious about a recent proposal by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointments that would cut incentives for those projects.

Home Secretary Deb Haaland observes a hummingbird at a news conference in Los Angeles.

“It really requires a hard look at conservation,” said Home Secretary Deb Haaland of California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. “They are doing what they can to make sure these species are protected.”

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

But most of the big environmental groups working on clean energy and public lands don’t want to thwart every development — they just want to see projects built in the least harmful places. Haaland said that was also the Interior Ministry’s priority.

“We always try to balance everything,” she said. “But I mean, look: if we don’t move to a clean energy economy, climate change is going to get worse. More plants and animals will die.”

Obtaining a permit to build a solar or wind farm on federal land can take several years, in part due to rigorous environmental assessments. And despite Biden’s emphasis on fighting climate change, prior to this week the Home Office had approved only one new solar farm and zero wind farms on federal lands since Biden took office, The Times recently reported.

Since then, the Home Office’s Bureau of Land Management has taken steps to push more clean energy projects forward.

On Monday, the bureau announced that it is seeking developers interested in building solar farms on nearly 90,000 acres in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. A few weeks earlier, the agency announced plans to reduce fees paid by solar and wind developers.

There is also a large backlog of projects waiting to be reviewed. The bureau says it is processing applications for 54 solar projects, four wind projects and four geothermal projects on the nearly 250 million acres of public lands it manages — about a tenth of the country’s area, almost all of the West. Preliminary examination is ongoing for a further 64 applications.

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When asked about the slow pace of project approvals so far, Haaland pointed to the Trump administration’s decision to move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Colorado — a decision Haaland reversed.

“There’s been a mass exodus of BLM careers, really good longtime careers who left the office when given an ultimatum to either quit or move,” she said. “So we’re working on all of that at the same time.” Biden approves two solar farms in the California desert

Tom Vazquez

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