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How the L.A. Times Got It Wrong on Desert Wind Energy

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Wind turbines in Desert Hot Springs | Photo: Rons Log/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Los Angeles Times published an editorial Monday calling for state and federal agencies to give wind energy a far bigger slice of the pie when portioning out the California desert. Here's why they got it badly wrong.

The July 22 opinion piece, penned by the Times' editorial board, began:

Wind turbines tend to be overshadowed by solar power projects, which get most of the attention from the public and policymakers. That's the case again in a new government plan for renewable energy projects in the California desert. Though the wind industry shouldn't get all the land it wants, the desert master plan should provide more and better space for wind farms.

That desert master plan is the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a gargantuan energy development planning process that's been under construction since 2008, though the Times wrongly cites that starting date as 2012. (2012 is actually when the process was originally scheduled to be completed.) The DRECP will, when it's finished, provide a framework for state and federal agencies to use to plan renewable energy development on more than 22 million acres of desert lands in Imperial, Inyo, Kern, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties.

Getting it finished is easier said than done. Aside from the main state and federal agencies involved -- the California Energy Commission and Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) -- the DRECP process involves collecting input from the Defense Department, county and local governments, desert tribes, environmentalists, land management scientists and wildlife biologists, and industry. It's taking a while to put it together.

One of the industry groups trying to influence the process is the California Wind Energy Association (CalWEA), which has lately been complaining that the DRECP's set of alternatives are focused on solar power, giving the wind industry the fuzzy end of the lollipop. CalWEA has gone so far as to call the DRECP a "serious threat to the wind industry," saying that current maps lock wind developers out of the vast majority of what it calls "the priority wind resource" in the 22 plus million acres covered by the DRECP.

The Times' editorial doesn't swallow CalWEA's claims completely uncritically. It says in as many words that the DRECP planners shouldn't give CalWEA "everything it wants," citing the historic bird death toll at the Altamont Pass wind facility.

Of course, the Times also states without citation that:

The industry has been doing better lately [than it did at Alltamont]. And when wind farms are carefully located to avoid sensitive habitat and bird migration routes, they are considered environmentally friendly enough to earn the support of the Audubon Society.

We'll leave alone for now the fact that the National Audubon Society's position on wind turbines has attracted its share of ire from bird conservationists, including many of its long-time members and activists, for being inexplicably sympathetic to the wind industry, leaving some of the hard questions to be asked by less-well-funded groups such as the American Bird Conservancy. (To its credit, the Times chose the eminently reasonable Garry George from Audubon California as their Green. George "gets" the desert better than most representatives of national green groups.)

All in all, the Time's editorial is a classic example of describing two sides of an argument and then picking a road somewhere in the middle to advocate. The Times comes down closer to the line it portrays George as advocating, but urges the DRECP's framers to open up more land in those 22 million acres and change for wind development.

The plan's developers should make more room for wind farms in areas that make sense for them. George says he has offered to work with the trade association on identifying the right places; the Audubon stamp of approval would certainly aid the industry's efforts. A 2008 federal study found that wind energy could serve 20% of the nation's electricity needs by 2030; government planners should help wind farms get there without, well, giving away the farm.

The problem is that there are very few "areas that make sense" for wind turbine facilities in the DRECP's turf.

Let's take a look at the DRECP area as shown in the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's (NREL) map of wind resources in California. You can see the entire map here, and if you do you'll see that the state's best wind areas are pretty much in Palm Springs, the western Mojave, and the Solano County area of the Sacramento Delta, all of those areas aggressively harnessed by wind developers.

Let's look more closely at the DRECP area. Here we've cropped the NREL map, and overlain the DRECP boundaries as a solid black line:

NREL wind speeds at 80 meters above ground, with DRECP boundaries | KCET

NREL classifies only those areas with wind speeds of seven meters per second or more at 50 meters above the ground as "good" wind resources. This NREL map shows wind speeds at 80 meters above the ground. Wind tends to slow a bit closer to the ground due to friction and turbulence, so an area with "good" wind speeds at 80 meters may not be as "good" 30 meters lower. Nonetheless, let's take seven meters per second at 80 meters up as our threshold here for good wind resources, even though that may overestimate the size of the resulting wind resource areas slightly.

As it happens, NREL's color coding for the map above has areas with wind speeds of seven meters per second or more colored in red, lavender, and purple. Spots colored in various shades of brown and green have wind resources that NREL would classify as "fair" to "poor" to nonexistent. Let's emphasize those better wind resource areas by desaturating the rest:

Wind speeds of 7 m/s or better within DRECP boundaries | KCET

Suddenly most of the DRECP's 22-plus million acres doesn't look so great for wind. The prime wind area in San Gorgonio Pass is outside the DRECP boundaries, as is much of the pretty purple area in the westernmost Antelope Valley over by Gorman. The only really good wind resources in the DRECP boundaries are in the Palmdale-Lancaster area, and north of there in the general environs of Mojave. That's an area already very much developed for wind energy, and getting more so.

But there are a few areas within the DRECP boundaries that are that red color that denotes wind speeds of between 7 and 7.5 meters per second, and some of those red areas have lavender centers in which wind speeds may even reach 8 meters per second. The biggest ones are in the easternmost portions of the DRECP's turf, one east of the Salton Sea down by the Mexican border, and another a couple hundred miles north of it. There are some spots north of Barstow, and a few trailing along the east side of the Southern Sierra Nevada north of the Mojave wind area.

Problem is, most of that land's spoken for already. Let's overlay the DRECP's national parks and military bases and see how that looks:

As above, with National Parks and military bases | KCET

That makes a big difference.

The large red and lavender area in the southeast part of the DRECP's turf still shows: that's right atop the Bradshaw Trail in Riverside and Imperial counties. The olive drab splotch adjacent to it is the U.S. Navy's Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, and the military has expressed strong concerns about wind development in areas where it conducts flight exercises.

The Mojave National Preserve sits atop most of the good wind area north of the one along the Bradshaw Trail, with only the Castle Mountains Exclusion -- the pocket of red between the Preserve and the state line -- and a little bit of red in Mountain Pass still showing.

There was an area of red showing north of the Salton Sea astride the Riverside-San Bernardino county line, and in the mountains to the south and east: that area of red is almost entirely within Joshua Tree National Park.

The khaki splotch between Joshua Tree and the Mojave Preserve is the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, which sits on a few more red spots, and the U.S. Army's Fort Irwin covers up a few of the smaller wind resource areas north of Barstow.

In the north, the China Lake Naval Weapons Station and sprawling Death Valley National Park have covered up a few more little red wind resource areas.

These maps are rough approximations, to be sure. The "granularity," to use a bit of mapping jargon, is rather large. There may be some places with excellent wind resource not shown here. And contrariwise, much of the areas remaining shown here as having good or better wind resources may turn out on examination to have quite poor wiind speeds. That's certainly what Element Power found out with its Pipes Canyon meteorological towers, as well as FirstWind's late proposal east of Joshua Tree.

And it seems to be what Pattern Energy is finding out at Ocotillo Express Wind.

CalWEA has a point when it complains that the best wind resource areas in DRECP's turf have been made off-limits, but that's not the DRECP's fault. If you're looking for someone to blame for that, you'd have to blame some combination of the Organic Act that established the National Park Service, the various laws that give the U.S. military power to manage its land holdings, and the California Desert Protection Act of 1994, which established the Mojave National Preserve atop one of the largest wind resource areas in the desert.

Or you could blame the fact that according to NREL's statistics, outside of two places already near-saturated with wind turbines, the California desert is just generally a lousy place for wind energy generation. For the most part, wind development in the desert isn't worth the expense or the threat to wildlife.

CalWEA's job, of course, is to push for wind turbine development. The Los Angeles Times' duty, on the other hand, is to inform its readers of what's really happening in the world. Given that it took ReWire less than an hour an hour to dig up the above maps and interpret them, we're a little surprised at the Times' editorial board for goofing so badly when it comes to the facts on the ground -- or 80 meters above it, anyway.

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