A Desert Stand-Off

Conservation vs. Renewables in California

Late last year, Ted Nordhaus and I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle about the tension between conservation and renewable energy deployment in California. Our subject was the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a massive piece of land use planning for California’s desert that has been eight years in the making. As we wrote at the time,

When it comes to energy and the environment, there is no free lunch. All energy technologies have environmental impacts. Having an honest conversation about the trade-offs associated with the state’s renewable energy commitments and its nuclear energy moratorium will be necessary if we hope to meet the state’s climate commitments while minimizing associated impacts on the natural environment.

This week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the final approval of the plan. Suffice it to say, the Secretary’s announcement will not assuage the tension between two environmental interests that have found themselves increasingly at odds in the Golden State: clean energy development and land conservation.

The DRECP represents a grudging compromise between the two camps. Nearly 11 million acres of public land are covered by the plan, about 400,000 acres of which are set aside for potential renewable energy development.

California prides itself as a leader in tackling climate change, with a target of 50% renewable energy by 2030, up from 30% today. But the question of where those renewable energy projects will go has brought developers into conflict with conservationists. Renewable energy development in the Mojave has already disturbed important habitat for endangered species like the desert tortoise, and conservationists object to the idea of industrializing natural landscapes with infrastructure projects.

Neither conservationists nor energy developers seem totally content with the finalized plan, but the wind and solar industries are expressing more indignance. They condemned the plan in a press release on Wednesday, arguing that much of the land is not suitable for energy development and that the limitations could “hamstring” the state’s ability to meet its climate goals. A statement from Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, summarized the problem succinctly: “No one is saying that utility-scale renewable energy should go everywhere, but done responsibly and with safeguards, it does have to go somewhere if we are to meet state, national, and global carbon-reduction goals.”

As Ted and I argued in the Chronicle last year, overhauling an electricity system is not a small project, and even with widespread public support for renewable energy, it is clear that new land use demands are creating uncomfortable trade-offs. Land-neutral options like rooftop solar offer a way around this conflict, as does siting projects on previously developed and degraded land. But there are technical and economic limits to both of these, which is why industry associations are pushing for utility-scale projects in high-resource areas in the desert. We also pointed out that California is only making its job harder by shutting down its last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, which provides 22% of the state’s zero-carbon electricity.

Two of Breakthrough’s core goals are sparing more land for nature and decarbonizing the energy sector. Although the DRECP is an attempt at compromise, it also reveals the limits of the conservation-decarbonization tradeoff. After all, California has already come up against conservation obstacles to its renewable energy goals with only a handful of large solar plants. Contrast that with one proposed plan to build thousands of solar farms in California’s deserts, which would require more than double the amount of land set aside in the DRECP.  

Our ongoing research is focused on how to reconcile decarbonization and land use - stay tuned for a forthcoming paper on this subject.