Biden’s climate bill could be dead. But he just approved two huge solar farms |

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The Home Office on Tuesday gave the green light to two huge solar farms in the California desert – a reminder that the Biden administration still has the tools to tackle climate change even if it cannot pass the bill. presidential law “Build better”.

The two solar power plants could potentially cover 2,700 acres in Riverside County, an hour’s drive east of Palm Springs and just south of Joshua Tree National Park. Federal officials have said they will generate enough electricity to power some 132,000 California homes.

This energy is said to help keep the lights on after dark, with the developer also building a lithium-ion battery bank.

A third solar farm in the same area, which the Biden administration said it expects to approve soon, would bring total clean energy production at the new facilities to nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar power and 900 four-hour battery storage megawatts.

Approval of renewable energy installations on public land does not replace national climate legislation, in terms of the amount of pollution that could be avoided. But these projects can still replace fossil fuels – and they don’t need the approval of Senate Republicans or West Virginia’s Democratic State Coalition Senator Joe Manchin III, who blocked Build Back Better.

“We absolutely need to move forward as much as possible with clean energy,” Home Secretary Deb Haaland said in an interview.

At the same time, the new solar farms are a reminder that the transition to renewable energy – although necessary to limit the worsening of wildfires and the deadliest heat waves of the climate crisis – comes with its own environmental challenges. .

Across the American West, conservation groups and tribes are increasingly concerned about the potential of solar, wind and geothermal power plants to destroy sensitive wildlife habitats and disrupt sacred landscapes. Federal officials grapple with these concerns as they attempt to meet Congress’ goal of allowing 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025, while protecting 30% of land and land. the country’s ocean waters by 2030 as part of Biden’s “30 by 30” program. “initiative.

Nowhere is the tension between conservation and clean energy more apparent than in Riverside County, California, which is already home to half a dozen large solar farms in operation or under construction, and many more are planned. Vast swathes of sunny, undeveloped land between the Coachella Valley and the Arizona border have attracted developers for more than a decade.

Riverside County ultimately became a poster for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which state and federal officials have said was necessary to resolve the conflict between development and conservation. Finalized in the last few months of the Obama administration, the plan designated a few hundred thousand acres of federal land in California for clean energy projects. He has protected millions more, hoping to save the wilderness for desert turtles, bighorn sheep, golden eagles and other species.

The recently approved Arica and Victory Pass solar farms are the first projects to receive the green light under the desert plan. Haaland told The Times that she sees the plan as a model for other Western states, as more solar and wind facilities are proposed for public lands.

“It really takes a critical look at conservation,” she said. “They are doing everything they can to make sure these species are protected.”

But from the perspective of the solar industry, just because two projects have been approved doesn’t mean the desert plan works.

For every facility that gets the federal go-ahead, “there are projects that aren’t even proposed because it’s so hard to navigate,” said Shannon Eddy, executive director of Large-scale Solar Assn., a commercial group based in Sacramento. . She said the desert plan’s “conservation management actions”, which require companies to take action to reduce the environmental impacts of their projects, are so restrictive that sometimes companies cannot build even in low-lying areas. designated development areas.

For example, in Imperial County in the far southeast of California – another windy and sunny mecca for renewable energy developers – Eddy said only 11,000 out of 53,000 acres designated for the clean energy are realistically usable for solar energy.

“It’s hard to find areas where you can actually put projects into it,” she said.

As if to illustrate this point, the Center for Biological Diversity has expressed concerns about Arica and Victory Pass. Even though the two solar farms would be built in areas designed for clean energy, they would still disrupt the sand dunes that are home to Mojave’s fringe lizards, as well as a crucial connectivity corridor for wildlife, the center said. .

But in a victory for state and federal officials, the conservation group isn’t opposed to Arica or Victory Pass.

“They complied with what the [desert plan] landscaped, ”said Ileene Anderson, scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Both solar parks are being developed by San Francisco-based Clearway Energy Group, which plans to begin construction on the first phase of each facility next year. The company has contracts in place to sell power to four government-run energy providers, including the Clean Power Alliance in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, as well as PepsiCo.

The projects could potentially include 465 megawatts of solar power and 400 megawatts of battery storage, and “will provide clean, reliable and affordable power when California needs it most,” said Julia Zuckerman, director of Clearway, in a statement. E-mail.

Environmentalists could still oppose the third solar farm presented by the Biden administration, known as Oberon.

In a September letter, a coalition comprising the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club criticized the Bureau of Land Management for proposing a desert plan waiver that would allow the project developer to destroy a few dozen trees. acres of microphyllous forests. , where ironwood and palo verde trees grow along ephemeral streams that flow during monsoons, feeding migrating mammals and birds. Anderson called these areas “the veins of the desert”.

A spokesperson for Oregon-based Oberon developer Intersect Power said the company has “been working diligently” with conservation groups for months to address their concerns and hopes to reach a final deal with them on Tuesday. on the way forward.

“This project represents one of the largest habitat mitigation efforts of any energy development project in California history, and is a prime example of clean energy and conservation going hand in hand,” said spokesperson McKinley Doty said in an email.

For some conservation groups focused on protecting wildlife habitat and undisturbed landscapes, large solar and wind farms are almost always problematic. They would much prefer to see solar panels covering rooftops, warehouses and parking lots – and they are furious at a recent proposal by those appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom that would reduce incentives for these projects.

But most of the big environmental groups working on clean energy and public lands don’t want to thwart all development – they just want to see projects built in the least damaging places. Haaland said it was the Home Office’s priority as well.

“We always try to balance everything,” she said. “But, I mean, look. If we don’t switch to saving clean energy, climate change will get worse. More plants and animals will die.

Getting approval to build a solar or wind farm on federal land can take several years, in part due to rigorous environmental reviews. And despite Biden’s focus on tackling climate change, before this week the Home Office had approved only one new solar farm and no wind farm on federal lands since Biden took over. his duties, as the Times recently reported.

Since then, the Bureau of Land Management of the Interior has taken steps to stimulate more clean energy projects.

On Monday, the office said it was looking for developers interested in solar construction on nearly 90,000 acres in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. A few weeks earlier, the agency had announced that it would reduce fees paid by solar and wind developers.

There is also a large backlog of projects awaiting review. The office says it is processing applications for 54 solar projects, four wind projects and four geothermal projects on the nearly 250 million acres of public land it manages – about a tenth of the country’s land area, almost entirely in the country. ‘Where is. A preliminary examination is underway for 64 other requests.

Asked about the slow pace of project approvals so far, Haaland highlighted the Trump administration’s decision to move the office of Land Management headquarters to Colorado from Washington, DC – a move Haaland chose to reverse.

“There has been a massive exodus of BLM career staff, very good, long-term career employees who left the office when given an ultimatum to resign or move,” she said. “So we’re working on all of this at the same time. “

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© 2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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