Meeting our need for renewable energy to deal with climate change has led to a “Green Civil War,” in the words of Dustin Mulvaney, as environmental activists in California debate the relative environmental value of developing large utility-scale renewable energy projects in the desert. Those projects invariably involve a conflict between competing environmental values: (1) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and therefore lessen climate disruption versus (2) their impact on wildlife habitat, water, and the aesthetic and recreational values of relatively undisturbed desert landscapes. As John Laird, the state Secretary of Natural Resources, tells the story, he was once approached after speaking on the topic by an audience member who said: “I’m on the environmental side of this debate.” Laird responded: “which side is that?” Both sides in this conflict are “on the environmental side of this debate.”
The challenge, in my view is not whether we develop the plentiful renewable energy resources in the desert—instead, it is about where and how we develop them. In some cases, we should clearly limit development so that other values are protected. In other cases, though, there is relatively little conflict between these worthy goals.
The Imperial Valley and the Salton Sea represent one of the latter cases. In fact, we can develop renewable energy projects here while simultaneously improving the reliability of the grid, the economic conditions in an area experiencing extremely high unemployment, and possibly the vexing problem of how to deal with water and air quality issues tied to the transfer of water from rural to urban California. We should therefore be focusing on Imperial Valley development as California moves toward higher levels of renewables development to meet our climate policy goals.
My views on this matter converge from four sources: (1) recognizing the need to value the ancillary services that many renewables (like geothermal) offer as the grid must manage an ever-growing input of wind and solar generation; (2) seeing the challenge of protecting important public values on many public lands in the desert; (3) knowing that private land use development is the province of city and county governments, which vary widely in California both in their capacity to handle large utility-scale renewable energy projects and the impacts of those projects on other land uses; and (4) spending several days last week at the Imperial Valley Renewable Energy Summit. I was incredibly impressed when there at how Imperial County has handled renewables development so far and the potential for much more in the future. There are ample geothermal and solar resources and some wind resources; there is extensive transmission capacity from the region to California load centers; and there is a comprehensive plan and commitment both by the County and the Imperial Irrigation District (IID) to pursue such development. Those are the core ingredients for large utility-scale development that are rarely found in California (an important exception being Kern County’s wind development near Tehachapi Pass).
Make no mistake: the region faces serious challenges to tap its great potential. In particular, California’s renewable energy and climate change policies need to recognize the incredible value of baseload geothermal power on a grid that faces increasing challenges to manage intermittent wind and solar generation. We need more extensive integration of large-scale storage into the grid as well (a topic for a future post), but the Imperial Valley’s geothermal resource should play a major role in the transition from gas-fired and nuclear generation. The impeding shrinkage of the Salton Sea (due to water transfers to urban areas) will expose lake bed that will in turn create new opportunities for geothermal development. Even existing agricultural lands can maintain agriculture over roughly 90% of the land if the geothermal resource beneath the ag land is developed (whereas many solar projects are taking ag lands out of production—or filling in where those ag lands are going out of production for other reasons, such as commodity prices or water transfers).
A great deal of work needs to be done to realize the vision, but Imperial County and the Imperial Irrigation District have been laying the groundwork for playing an increasingly important role in California’s renewable energy future. Now we need to ensure that California’s policies—and the utility procurement processes that translate those policies into actual projects—support that win-win development. The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) has been stalled on private lands following the recent closure of comments on the Draft DRECP, but that means Imperial County can take the lead moving forward with the state’s assistance to ensure that other environmental values (such as threatened and endangered species conservation) are protected.