Will California's Best Management Practices and Guidance Manual help streamline renewable energy permitting in the California deserts?
The California Renewable Energy Action Team's (REAT) final Best Management Practices and Guidance Manual for Desert Renewable Energy Projects is now available. The Manual was adopted by the California Energy Commission on December 15, 2010. The final version posted online last week includes the minor additions from the December 15 meeting.
The REAT is made up of the California Energy Commission, California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management. The REAT has the task of helping accelerate the permitting of renewable energy facilities in the California Mojave and Colorado Deserts, while minimizing environmental impacts and conserving natural resources in these areas. This will facilitate California’s larger goals of generating 33% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by 2020. For more background information on the REAT and Executive Order S-14-08, creating the Team, see our previous legal alert.
The REAT is preparing a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for the California Mojave and Colorado Deserts ecological areas. The Best Management Practices and Guidance Manual provides interim guidance to facilitate renewable energy during preparation of the comprehensive Conservation Plan. The Manual is designed to provide guidance to renewable energy developers on designing and siting renewable energy projects in these desert areas. The Manual’s stated goals also include assisting agencies in reviewing and permitting renewable energy projects and accelerating environmental review of renewable energy projects, though there is less practical material on these goals.
The Manual mainly details actions that should be taken prior to filing an application for a renewable energy project to streamline the permitting process. Many of the recommendations, though, are what savvy developers would strive for in any project: start coordinating early with agencies with long permitting lead times and provide them with complete materials so the process is not delayed, design and site your project to lessen environmental impacts and make sure it is not in conflict with local requirements, plans, or zoning, and complete your long-lead items in the environmental review process, like season-specific surveys, early. In fact, the Manual states “if the majority of the actions are not addressed it is likely that environmental review and decision-making will take additional time.” While it isn’t groundbreaking advice, it is useful for developers new to California or to serve as a checklist. The Manual, disappointingly (but perhaps not surprisingly) doesn’t provide agencies with any new means to shortcut the laborious permitting process. The main pre-filing recommendations are:
- The renewable energy project is proposed to be located on land identified by the REAT and/or BLM as suitable for renewable energy development.
- The project will use air‐cooling technologies for thermal power plant cooling.
- The appropriate biological resource surveys are completed during the appropriate season using the proper protocols.
- A draft biological assessment (BA), draft application for Incidental Take Permits, and draft Lake or Streambed Alteration Agreement notification form, if applicable to the project, are as complete as possible and filed with applications to the appropriate lead agencies. The draft BA must include a complete draft project description, full description and assessment of project impacts and species affected, and project impact mitigation measures.
- Cultural resource surveys required by lead agencies, and lead agency approved archaeological reports, tribal consultations, assessments, and project impact mitigation measures are completed following the proper protocols and standards.
- BLM requirements and Resource Management Plans are addressed and incorporated in the project design, for projects located on BLM managed lands. Projects are consistent with guidance in the BLM programmatic wind and geothermal Environmental Impact Statements (EISs), and after publication, the BLM programmatic solar EIS.
- Local agency requirements, including but not limited to local zoning, general plan policies, land use, water, hydrology, safety, aesthetics, noise, traffic, and height restrictions, are incorporated into the applications to lead agencies. The project is consistent with Williamson Act requirements, zoning ordinances, and general plan designations. If termination of a Williamson Act contract is required for locating a project on contracted lands, contract termination is in the final stages.
- DOD and nearby military installation requirements are addressed and incorporated into a project’s design, ensuring that the project will not conflict with military operations.
- Interconnecting the proposed project to the existing electric transmission system is shown to not negatively impact electric transmission system reliability. A transmission system interconnection study (California Independent System Operator [California ISO] Phase I, for example) is reviewed and completed by the California ISO or other control area operator. Measures for eliminating unacceptable degradation to the transmission system reliability beyond the first point of interconnection are identified and agreed upon.
- For projects requiring local air quality management district or air pollution control district permits, include the proposed project Determination of Compliance or Authority to Construct application with applications to lead agencies.