Alternative Energy

Published on December 29th, 2009 | by Susan Kraemer


Senator Feinstein’s Desert Monument Bill: Hurting or Helping Solar?

Despite her unblemished past record of good votes on environmental, renewable energy and climate change prevention; Senator Feinstein has just confounded the media by proposing a bill that would seem to have the effect of slowing solar energy development in California’s deserts, by placing some portion of it off-limits.

Of course, most jumped on the easy story: environmentalists fighting themselves. But there is also evidence to support her contention that her bill, by taking environmental concerns off the table, is just what we need to break the logjam of efforts to build more renewable energy in California.

One piece of evidence is right in the maps:


Senator Feinstein's proposed renewable energy free zones

Here is the map (above) showing the proposed National Monuments – these are  similar to a national park but can be created by Congress or an order of the president without congressional approval. Monuments receive less funding and provide less wildlife protection than national parks.

Senator Feinstein’s proposal to set aside a National Monument in the Mojave comes at a time when solar applications (red dots below) are bogged down in environmental reviews in California. A few are within the proposed National Monument areas, but most are not.


The solar proposals that fall within the areas affected by the bill, appear to be the ones along Route 66 under the Mojave Desert. The little red dots are the proposed solar sites (PDF) .

But the overall view of the solar sites throughout the desert show that there is plenty of room for both her  set-asides and the  solar development we need.


The 97 Gigawatts of solar applications throughout the desert states in the last few years would provide enough solar energy to supply the needs of around 29 million households. California is just one of the states that has perfect solar insolation in its desert areas, and California’s solar applications represent about 10GW of solar, if they are approved. Arizona recently nixed sending California any solar.

PG&E (serving about half of all Californians) has enough contracts signed to meet its mandate to supply 33% of California’s energy by 2020.

But signing a contract between a utility bound by mandate to get a certain percent of its energy from renewable power – – and the many solar companies more than ready to step up to supply our energy to end our dependence on fossil fuels – – that’s the easy part. Next comes years of the most elaborate review, battling competing interests with a wide array of unrealistic expectations.

The biggest legal intervenor noted on most of the solar applications has been the Center for Biological Diversity. Co-founder Peter Galvin claims that the objections filed are merely because the applications have been in the wrong place:

“Hundreds of thousands of acres of already-degraded lands that are better suited for energy development already exist outside the proposed monument.”

He has said that they have no preference for climate-destroying fossil energy:

“A rapid transition to renewable energy is essential if we are to address global warming; however, we need not destroy pristine public lands and endangered species habitat to do so.”

Southern California Edison also says it strikes a good balance between conservation and renewable energy development:

“The bill provides clarity about this issue, and importantly, it ensures existing transmission corridors are not affected. That allows Southern California Edison continued access to renewable energy-rich locations.”

Joanna Wald, the San Francisco senior attorney for the NRDC sees a win-win for renewable energy and the environment. It is not either / or. We can set aside areas, and build all the renewable energy we need.

“After the great bulk of sensitive lands were accounted for, our renewable potential was some 500,000 MW, (500 GW) an order of magnitude greater than our peak demand.  If military reservations were counted in this calculation, the number would be even greater.”

Looking at the Feinstein maps, Wald does appear to be correct. These are not huge areas being set aside: just along Route 66 and another patch West of The Joshua Tree National Park.

The NRDC had created its own google earth mapping project earlier this year to coordinate renewable energy development and conservation areas, so that they wouldn’t overlap. Wald says that

“We have enough renewable resources to do their development and any needed transmission right!”

If the Feinstein bill were to pass, probably by being incorporated into the bigger CEJAPA climate and energy bill, it would possibly knock out some of the proposed projects south of the Mojave Desert along Route 66.

The only solar company or organization listed on Senator Feinstein’s site as approving her proposal is Cogentrix, the new owner of SEGS I and II, North of Barstow, one of the unaffected projects – and one of the few already built.

On the other hand, though, her bill might also greatly speed up the approval process in general, by working with the groups that have been slowing it, to determine the exact areas and the kind of land that would not be offensive.

Until now, solar developers have focused development proposals on pristine public land because it has been so difficult, costly, and time consuming to consolidate large blocks of disturbed private land from many different owners. Her proposal would aim to change that, making it more cost effective to put together blocks of disturbed land, thus leaving the public land alone.

To even out the incentives, her bill would create a 30% investment tax credit for the purchase, consolidation, and use, of multiple 100 acre or less blocks of disturbed private desert lands for solar development, by establishing a new solar tax credit for consolidation of disturbed private land with high solar value.

Another innovative aspect of the bill her bill could be exactly what is needed to improve goodwill among cash-strapped local government entities, many of which have opposed these developments, in most cases because they perceive little benefit to the local community.

It  returns “25 percent of the revenue generated by new renewable energy projects to the state, and 25 percent to local county governments”, ensuring that these entities have the resources to support permitting, public lands protection, and local conservation efforts.

Assuming the wording on her website refers to after-tax profits (not 25% of income!) hopefully this tax would not kill any solar company that was reasonably well capitalized. Solar companies currently do get a 30% solar tax credit from the Federal government – – plus they would get the additional 30% tax credit in her new bill (if they can put together that “private disturbed land”).

That financial provision in the bill benefiting counties could be a sweetener for local government.  Brad Mitzelfelt is the San Bernadino District Supervisor who has tried to halt the BrightSource Ivanpah project, on the grounds that it has no benefits to the local community. Yet, as a wry comment on a local blog in reference to the Abengoa solar project near Barstow puts it:

“I wonder if the Board of Supervisers will support this project as vigorously as they support the sewage sludge dump west of Hinkley.”

This bill could be just what California needs to break the logjam slowing our adoption of renewable energy. Or it could make it more difficult.

One aspect of the bill forces solar companies to complete the environmental application faster, which sounds good, but that may be beyond their control.

A San Bernadino County whistle blower told me privately:

“When you mentioned the 18-month reviewing process, you are actually being very optimistic.  Some “biological” studies take two years because some species come out every other year.  Biologists have to sit outside for weeks counting insects, turtles, and trees.

Local governments did not mandate these rules.  They are done by the State and Federal governments. Those who are upset about these should talk to their representatives at those levels of government.  Add in potential opposition from the local residents and environmentalists, the process can last more than two years even if the local governments fully cooperate”.

Shortages of biologists (for providing a count of desert tortoises on site) and “approved geoarchaeologists” slow applications to a crawl.

One question on the 50 page application for the Abengoa project required Abengoa to “…have the approved geoarchaeologist provide a discussion, based on the available Quaternary science and geoarchaeological literature, of the historical geomorphology of the project areas.”

SolarReserve’s application shows that they were also able to locate such a creature, who testified:

“Thus the Holocene (the last 10,000 years) appears to be restricted to at most the top 20 cm of the stratigraphic column and, based on the results of Trench 2 and an overview of the project area, the Holocene section may have been obliterated by World War II era activities.
No artifacts or ecofacts were observed during trench excavation, and no ecofacts would be expected to be preserved in this type of well-oxidized alluvial soil. Given the low productivity desert scrub ecosystem in the vicinity, and the waterless landscape, an assessment of low subsurface archaeological potential would be consistent with the setting as well as the stratigraphy”

While our solar projects have languished in this arcane limbo, in the meantime, a plethora of new natural gas projects have been promptly approved by the same local District Supervisors to foul our water and contribute to exacerbating regional climate change that has already added a degree each decade in California and could put an end to many crops here by the 2100’s — with estimated average regional increases of 9 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Center for Biological Diversity says they have identified 200,000 acres of degraded private and public lands in the California desert where solar projects could occur with minimal environmental impact.

I have not been able to locate that map, but I hope that it is the same map that Senator Feinstein is using.

Senator Feinstein: Map of Proposed Changes
California Energy Commission: Proposed Solar Sites

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