Governor Schwarzenegger Strikes Again: 33% RPS by 2020 and Streamlined Renewable Energy Permitting in California

Governor Schwarzenegger’s been keeping busy on California’s big-ticket environmental issues. Yesterday the Governor’s office issued Executive Order S-14-08, with the laudable goal of accelerating the development of renewable energy resources . . . not to mention bolstering California’s economy with clean-tech jobs. Governor Schwarzenegger announced the Order at what will be the largest solar panel manufacturing facility in North America. The Governor’s remarks on his Executive Order highlighted that investing in renewable energy projects will help us fight climate change, “while driving the state’s green economy.”

Executive Order S-14-08 calls for California to get 33% of our electric energy from renewable sources by 2020. The current Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), instituted in SB 107 in 2006, requires that 20% of California’s power come from renewable sources by 2010. Unlike the current RPS, the Governor's new target applies to both investor-owned utilities and public utilities.  A recent ballot initiative in California, which would have applied California's RPS to public utilities, failed on November 7th, after being opposed by a broad coalition of environmental groups and renewable energy industry groups.  The Governor says he will propose legislation that will codify the 33% RPS for all retail sellers of electricity.

The Order also implements an MOU signed yesterday by the California Energy Commission (CEC), the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Starting in February 2009, renewable energy projects should enjoy a streamlined project approval process before a special joint unit of DFG and CEC. But exactly how will these two agencies “immediately create,” as the Order directs, a one-stop process for permitting renewable energy generation power plants? For thermal power plants over 50 MW, including geothermal and solar thermal facilities, the CEC already is, supposedly, the one-stop shop

A CEC license is “in lieu of any permit, certificate, or similar document required by any state, local or regional agency, or federal agency to the extent permitted by federal law ... .” (Pub. Res. Code section 25500) That's a nice sentiment that the Legislature put into the Warren-Alquist Act in 1975, but actually, CEC approval does not eliminate the need to get, for instance, an incidential take or streambed alteration permit from DFG, an air permit from a regional air district, an NPDES permit from a regional water board, a lease from the State Lands Commission, and so on. So, will this new DFG-CEC process really be different? And what about all those renewable energy projects that are permitted by local agencies, like wind farms and solar PV? The Executive Order certainly doesn't negate the potential need for a solar PV project to rezone, acquire a conditional use permit, or comply with a county's general plan.

The Executive Order does not propose any of the details for this streamlined permitting process, though it’s apparent that the Governor is looking to smooth one huge wrinkle for renewable energy development in the Mojave and Colorado Desert regions – protected species. DFG and CEC are directed to develop a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) in these regions which will identify areas for renewable energy project development and areas intended for long-term conservation. The DRECP will provide long-term endangered species permit assurances to developers and facilitate approval of desert projects. The presence of protected species and habitat has been one of the biggest sticks that project opponents have to wield against desert projects, but the DRECP will potentially take that contentious element out of the mix. For city/county-permitted projects, like wind and solar PV, shortening the process to obtain a DFG incidental take permit certainly wouldn’t hurt.

 

State agencies are also directed to work with the feds on various initiatives, to get federal agencies on board with this approach. After all, within California about 80% of the Mojave Desert and over 50% of the Colorado Desert is managed by BLM or other federal agencies. The Governor is powerless to direct the federal agencies with responsibility for the protection of federal threatened and endangered species to do anything, but if state agencies coordinate with federal entities in developing the DRECP and other renewable energy initiatives, the federal agencies will hopefully be friendly allies in the new process.

 

The Western Renewable Energy Zone initiative and the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative are also encouraged, with the Governor calling for various avenues of cooperation between the CEC, the California Public Utilities Commission, and the California Independent System Operator within these programs.

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