Fifteen years ago, the city of Riverside, California, had only 151.2 kilowatts of solar power from a single carport structure. Today, there are almost 2,200 solar generation projects within the city alone, generating 30 megawatts of power. Back in 2005, Riverside’s Green Action Committee had set an ambitious goal: at least 20 MW of solar generation by 2020. Four years ahead of schedule, the city is already 50 percent ahead of its original goal. According to its forecasts, by the end of 2017, solar will make up nearly 12 percent of Riverside’s total power.
“It is easy to pledge to become one of the state’s leading solar communities,” said Mayor Rusty Bailey. “But without the commitments of the city, the utility, and the residents of Riverside taking action to make that pledge a reality, we would never have surpassed our goals this soon.”
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Riverside County, the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is the largest of its kind on U.S. Federal lands. The 5.6-square-mile structure consists of 8 million panels, and generates enough electricity to power over 150,000 homes.
Yet, as might be expected for an expanding industry, solar power in the Riverside area is currently experiencing the stresses – and controversies – of rapid growth. What is the problem, exactly? The desert tortoise, apparently.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has put forward a new plan – the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan – to allocate about 10 million acres of public land in the California desert for conservation, recreation and clean-energy installations such as Desert Sunlight. The difficulty is with the proportions of land that the plan allocates to each of these vital goals. Conservationists not only wish to conserve those areas in which species like the desert tortoise currently inhabit, but those areas through which they might travel as climate change warms the area. In the plan, for example, more than twice the area that is currently important as habitat for the desert tortoise would be preserved for it.
However, according to clean energy developers, the area left over for development, about 388,000 acres, isn’t sufficient for future projects. It’s not that the industry wishes to develop the entire 388,000 acres. It’s that the locations of the lands designated as permissible for development are not thought to be sufficiently adaptable to meet the needs of the industry.
Both the wind and solar industries dispute the claim of the plan’s supporters that they have been granted enough acreage to generate the megawatts of power needed to meet California’s mandated renewable energy goals. Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, was quoted as saying, “We’re kind of throwing in the towel at this point… The [wind] developers have largely left California.”
At least part of the solution to this conflict between environmentalists and developers may lie with the section of east Riverside County, between Los Angeles and Phoenix, called the Chuckwalla Valley. This low-lying region is so hot and dry that the desert tortoise does not generally regard it as a desirable habitat, so conservationists are fine with developers setting up solar installations there. Joan Taylor, a conservationist, has called it a “sacrifice area for solar.”
Part of the controversy also involves the amount of private lands in California that the solar industry might be able in the future to use for development. Some environmentalists assert that the combination of public and private lands will be sufficient for the industry’s needs, while the industry itself counters that it simply doesn’t know how much private land will become available for it in the future, and thus rejects as unrealistic the environmentalists’ projections.
Karen Douglas of the California Energy Commission explained that solar developers, under the BLM’s plan, could conceivably be permitted to construct new projects on lands not specifically allocated to solar development, but this means that the approval process for those projects would not be streamlined, as would projects involving lands allocated for solar, and thus would take much longer.