The State of California and the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) have entered into a Memorandum of Understanding on renewable energy, building on existing collaboration by California and its federal partners to facilitate the development of renewable energy resources in the state. The MOU stems from California and DOI energy policy directives, and California’s legislative mandate to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050, and produce 33% of California’s electrical needs from renewable energy sources by 2020. The MOU notes one reason for California and DOI to really get the ball rolling on their collaboration: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act specifically directs economic stimulus funding to qualified renewable energy projects that begin construction by December 1, 2010.

The California-DOI MOU complements and expands on several MOUs issued over the past year to establish and outline the activities of the California Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT). The REAT was provided for in California Executive Order S-14-08, issued November 17, 2008, to “establish a more cohesive and integrated statewide strategy, including greater coordination and steamlining of the siting, permitting, and procurement processes for renewable generation … .” In other words, let’s dispense with the permitting hang-ups and delays that plague development projects in California and get more renewable energy facilities online.  While Executive Order S-14-08 does not focus on the development of solar energy in particular, this MOU is geared to faciliting California’s burgeoning solar energy industry.

The California Energy Commission and the California Department of Fish and Game are the main state actors in the REAT, operating under a November 2008 MOU between the two agencies to create a “one-stop process” for permitting renewable energy projects under their joint permitting authority. Since the Energy Commission only licenses thermal power plants, this collaboration is primarily focused on reducing the permit processing time for solar thermal, biomass, and geothermal projects. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also participate in the REAT under a separate MOU signed in November 2008, which outlines the state and federal cooperation of the group.

The recent MOU between California and Interior reiterates several tasks of the REAT provided for in S-14-08 and the Energy Commission-Fish and Game MOU:

  • For U.S. Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game to identify renewable energy zones (REZs), as part of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), based on renewable energy development potential, environmental, wildlife, and conservation criteria.
  • Develop a conservation strategy by identifying areas most suitable for renewable energy development and for regional multispecies and habitat conservation.
  • Complete a draft DRECP by December 31, 2010 and a final DRECP by June 20, 2012.
  • Aside from the Mojave and Colorado Desert areas covered in the DRECP, identify and publish top priority areas in California where other Natural Community Conservation Plans or similar plans may be developed, based on their renewable energy development potential.

The MOU also draws together several activities of the state and federal agencies, including BLM’s programmatic environmental impact statement for solar energy development (Solar PEIS), the DRECP, and the Best Management Practices manual to assist renewable energy project applicants in designing projects. In fact, the MOU places a sharp emphasis on solar energy, making it a “high priority” to process applications for solar development in “any areas deemed most appropriate,” areas identified as solar energy zones in the BLM Solar PEIS, REZs identified in the DRECP, and areas identified by the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative. The MOU also calls for the parties to place a high priority on processing applications and permitting for transmission upgrades needed to serve these areas. Though the MOU was signed on October 12, 2009, by September 30, 2009, the parties were to have identified “interim guidelines to assist solar project developers to design and site projects in an environmental suitable manner.” 

This all ties back to an MOU signed in 2007 by BLM and California Energy Commission on joint environmental review of solar thermal projects on BLM land. The MOU outlined the BLM and Energy Commission environmental review processes under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Warren-Alquist Act, respectively, and how the two would overlap to create a cooperative process. The obvious advantages include sharing staff expertise and information, avoiding duplication of staff efforts, and facilitating public review by holding joint public meetings, issuing joint public notices, and producing a joint environmental document.