The Interior Department gave the green light Tuesday to two huge solar farms in the California desert — a reminder that the Biden administration still has tools to combat climate change even if it can’t pass the president’s “Build Back Better” bill.
The two solar plants could eventually cover 2,700 acres in Riverside County, an hour’s drive east of Palm Springs and just south of Joshua Tree National Park. Federal officials say they would generate enough electricity to power some 132,000 California homes.
That energy would help keep the lights on after dark, with the developer also building a bank of lithium-ion batteries.
A third solar farm in the same area, which the Biden administration said it expects to approve soon, would bring total clean power generation at the new facilities to nearly 1,000 megawatts of solar and 900 megawatts of four-hour battery storage.
Approving renewable energy facilities on public lands is no substitute for national climate legislation, in terms of how much planet-warming pollution might be avoided. But these projects can still displace fossil fuels — and they don’t need the approval of Senate Republicans or coal-state Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, who have blocked Build Back Better.
“We absolutely have to move forward as much as we can with clean energy,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in an interview.
At the same time, the new solar farms offer a reminder that the transition to renewable power — while badly needed to limit the worsening wildfires and deadlier heat waves of the climate crisis — comes with its own environmental challenges.
Across the American West, conservation groups and tribes have grown increasingly concerned about the potential for solar, wind and geothermal power plants to destroy sensitive wildlife habitat and disrupt sacred landscapes. Federal officials are grappling with those concerns as they try to meet a congressional target of permitting 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025, while also protecting 30% of the nation’s lands and ocean waters by 2030 as part of Biden’s “30 by 30” initiative.
Nowhere is the tension between conservation and clean energy more apparent than in California’s Riverside County, which is already home to half a dozen large solar farms operating or under construction, with many more planned. Vast expanses of sunny, undeveloped land between the Coachella Valley and the Arizona state line have attracted developers for more than a decade.
Riverside County ultimately became a poster child for the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which state and federal officials said was needed to resolve the conflict between development and conservation. Finalized during the last months of the Obama administration, the plan designated a few hundred thousand acres of federal land in California for clean energy projects. It protected millions more, in hopes of preserving wildlands for desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, golden eagles and other species.