Monday, February 14, 2011

Environmental Groups Criticize Federal Solar Proposal

Federal guidelines for large-scale solar development on federal land east of the Coachella Valley came under fire from environmental groups and area residents at a recent public meeting.

About 110 people turned out for the meeting, held at the Hyatt Grand Champions Resort, Villas and Spa. Sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy, the forum was to gather public comment as federal agencies work to draft an overarching framework for solar development on public lands in six western states, including California.

“I think some of their assumptions are really flawed,” said Joan Taylor, desert energy chair for the Sierra Club.

“How much can the grid take of peak power? There needs to be rigorous analysis. We don't want to be dumping solar power in the future.”

More than 30 attendees signed up to speak and were still giving testimony late Tuesday.

The draft report, called the Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, or PEIS, calls for solar projects to cover 80 percent of the Riverside East zone, a 202,000-acre, U-shaped curve of land lying between Joshua Tree National Park and Blythe.

Solar development there could generate between 18,000 and 32,000 megawatts of power and add up to 11,000 permanent jobs and $424 million in the valley economy, the report said.

Environmental impacts include noise levels well over county-mandated limits, thousands more vehicles on Interstate 10 and a major influx of non-native plant species as desert vegetation is cleared for solar projects.

Riverside East is the largest of 24 federally designated solar energy zones. Two large solar projects have already been approved for the area, and two others are close to final approval.

The federal report also recommends opening up even more public land to solar development than the 667,384 acres currently under consideration across western states. Another 21.5 million acres of federal land could be considered for renewable energy development, including 1.7 million more acres in California, with 205,000 acres of the total in the Palm Springs region.

Tim Anderson of Desert Center, who operates a private, 20-acre wildlife refuge in the area, expressed concerns at Tuesday's meeting.

“I want to protect the desert,” he said. “One of the projects is a couple of miles from us. This is not protecting the desert.”

Seth Shteir, desert representative for the National Parks Conservation Association, also said the environmental study did not take the potential impacts of climate change into account.

“Many of our aquifers are overdrawn,” he said. “Variable precipitation will affect aquifers. It's counterintuitive to sacrifice public land to save it from the harshest impacts of climate change.”

But Linda J. Resseguie, senior reality specialist with the BLM, said the Riverside East figures are hypothetical maximums, used to gauge potential cumulative impacts of solar development in the region over a 20 year period.

“We're not saying 80 percent of Riverside (East) will be developed, but to get the cumulative impact, you have to establish an upper limit,” she said.

The BLM will be revising the draft based on public comments at the Indian Wells and other public meetings being held across the six western states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado — in the next two months. A final draft of the report is expected in the fall, Resseguie said.

Not everyone at the meeting opposed the government's plans for solar development.

Sid Cabral of Palm Desert is an unemployed construction worker currently in training courses on industrial-scale solar at College of the Desert and hoping to get a job at one of the Riverside East projects.

“I think it's great as long as some jobs come through,” Cabral said. “Solar seems to be the direction it's heading, but we're asking when.”

Robert Bernheimer of Indian Wells supported the report's proposal for opening up even more land for consideration, saying limiting the scope of potential solar projects now is “sending the wrong message.”

“To predetermine now is a negative,” he said.

Amanda Beck is an environmental project manager working on one of the Riverside East projects, the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar project being developed by First Solar. She sees the environmental impact study as a general plan, but said individual projects should still be evaluated on a case-by- case basis.

“We're working with the BLM; we want their efforts to be in cooperation with industry and all the different stakeholders,” she said.

“It's important everyone can work together.”


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