(Jenny Rowland, Think Progress)

September 15,2016

The plan was well-received by conservation groups, while solar advocates said more land should have been set aside for energy.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell approved Wednesday a plan to set aside 10.8 million acres of public land in the California desert for mostly conservation — with a dash of renewable energy.

Nearly a decade in the making, phase one of the Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan, or DRECP, provides a blueprint to help meet ambitious state and national climate goals and to site new solar, wind, and geothermal energy projects.

“Today we celebrate the culmination of more than eight years of thoughtful planning, deep collaboration, and extensive public engagement to guide future management of 10 million acres of California desert that belong to all Americans,” said Secretary Jewell in Palm Desert on Wednesday. “This landscape-level plan will support streamlined renewable energy development in the right places while protecting sensitive ecosystems, preserving important cultural heritage and supporting outdoor recreation opportunities.”

The plan sets aside less than 388,000 acres for renewable energy development — on land that has been found to have the least possible conflict with conservation priorities. The plan will also streamline the permitting process for clean energy development, such as wind and solar projects, because environmental surveying has already been conducted in these zones.

Under the DRECP, this land has the potential to generate up to 27,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy, enough to power 8 million homes — three times the amount of solar energy that has been produced on public lands to date.

In addition to land dedicated to clean energy development, the plan sets aside millions of acres of conservation lands, with about 2.8 million acres permanently protected as National Conservation Lands and others reauthorized or expanded as Areas of Critical Environmental Concern. This mix of protected lands will provide critical wildlife habitat, along with providing recreation opportunities and preserving cultural areas.

“The California desert offers some of the best renewable energy resources in the world, but it is also home to historic trails, ancient Native American petroglyphs, and remarkable wildlife like bighorn sheep and desert tortoise,” Dan Smuts, senior director at the Wilderness Society, said in a statement. “The finalization of phase one of the DRECP demonstrates to the entire nation that through intelligent planning, we can provide renewable energy solutions and protect our cherished wild lands.”

A primary aim of the proposal is to address climate change. The lands contained within the plan are not only some of the best locations for solar energy, recent studies have found the desert ecosystem stores enormous amounts of carbon buried as calcium carbonate in the soil. Conservation areas will prevent disturbance of the soil, which could release carbon into the atmosphere.

The plan is the product of years of collaboration and compromise between federal and state governments, renewable energy companies, conservationists, local communities, and other stakeholders.

However, not everyone is happy with the compromise. The Solar Energy Industry Association criticized the plan for favoring conservation goals and not going far enough in permitting lands for development. Meanwhile, some conservation groups are arguing that more should be done to protect the California desert’s vulnerabilities to climate change.

“The plan protects millions of sensitive acres from development, while welcoming renewable energy development in areas that make sense,” David J Hayes, former Deputy Secretary of the Interior and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said in a statement. “Hats off to BLM and its partners in California who, after participating in a vigorous public process, have laid out a plan that honors conservation imperatives, while providing new opportunities for Californians to increase renewable energy production in sun-rich southern California.”

The announcement was part of a three-state tour from the Department of the Interior promoting renewable energy on public lands and waters. The DRECP is one part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which calls on the department to permit 20,000 MW of renewable power by 2020. Since 2009, the department has permitted enough utility-scale renewable energy projects on public lands to power approximately 5.1 million homes.

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