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Home Secretary Haaland visits California desert, touts solar power


US Home Secretary Deb Haaland visited the California desert on Saturday to promote industrial solar farms and other large renewable projects on public lands in the West.

“The demand for renewable energy has never been greater,” she said during an outdoor media briefing under the splashes of sunlight at the Palm Springs office of the Bureau of Land Management. “Technological advances, increased interest, profitability and enormous economic potential make these projects a promising avenue for diversifying our energy portfolio.

Haaland said the Home Office was working with states, cities and tribes “to meet our goal of allowing at least 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on land by 2025.”

One gigawatt is roughly the size of two coal-fired power plants and can power 750,000 homes. According to the Department of Energy, there are currently 97.2 gigawatts in operation in the United States, enough to power 18 million homes.

Haaland, along with other senior federal officials, sees the use of portions of large federal lands to build new renewable energy as essential for reducing fossil fuel emissions, slowing rapid climate change, and boosting local economies. This includes the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts in some areas.

She said the Bureau of Land Management is currently processing 49 proposed land-based clean energy projects on public lands in the western United States, including 36 solar projects, four wind projects, four geothermal projects and five power lines. “gen tie” interconnection which she says “are vital” to connecting to proposed clean energy projects on non-federal lands.

Photo submitted by Jesse Pluim: US Home Secretary Deb Haaland, second from left, and US Representative Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, left, visit a solar farm in Desert Center, Calif., On December 11, 2021.

“These projects have the combined potential of adding more than 24,500 megawatts of renewable energy to the Western power grid.”

One megawatt can power between 400 and 900 homes. The share of electricity from solar “farms” in the United States that use photovoltaic panels or solar thermal concentrating technology is still small – just over 3% – but is growing, according to the ministry. Energy.

Deflect worries

Haaland did not respond directly to a question about the concerns of area conservationists and some Native Americans about the loss of critical habitat for the species and the possible destruction of sacred sites during the construction of renewable energy facilities. . Haaland, who is the first Native American cabinet member, said instead that the entire Biden administration, and not just his department, made it a top priority to consult with sovereign tribes early and often on major initiatives.

She said in her prepared remarks that “at every stage” of her renewable energy plans, “Interior will undertake (…) broad engagement, including fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts, sovereign tribal nations, states, territories, local officials, forest land owners and others to… reflect the priorities of each community. ”

It is a tall order. U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, who was with Haaland on Saturday, said that in California, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was carefully developed under the Obama administration to ensure the conservation of important areas and cultural artefacts, while other areas are razed and built.

U.S. Home Secretary Deb Haaland, left, listens to U.S. Representative Raul Ruiz, D-Palm Desert, speak outside the Bureau of Land Management office in Palm Springs, Calif., December 11, 2021.

BLM California director Karen Mouritsen told the press conference that possible improvements to the desert plan were being discussed with various groups to achieve its goals. In the past, for example, biologists have noticed desert turtles, rare wildflowers, or other species in areas intended for development, without seeing them in some areas kept for them.

Ruiz sees solar and lithium projects as essential not only for the United States, but for the region.

“This is our signature, our competitive advantage to produce renewable energy,” he said. “You can’t talk about solar power … let alone what’s going on in eastern Riverside County. The 36th District is a national leader in renewable energy. In fact, we’re producing more solar power. on federal lands than any other congressional district. in the countryside. “

Haaland and Ruiz also celebrated the recently enacted $ 1,000 billion bipartisan federal infrastructure law, saying it would help fix aging infrastructure, provide clean water for children and others, and modernize. broadband and other critical systems.

Haaland referred to top Home Department officials when asked about the continuing drought and worsening shortages in the Colorado River system, which supplies water to eight states in the ‘West and Mexico.

The rural river basin districts of the Coachella and Imperial valleys hold superior water rights under a 1922 Colorado River agreement and court case law, but some say as secretary of the interior, she or other officials under her leadership could open the pact for further negotiations or take other urgent action. Water experts say if it did, districts with superior rights would likely take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Desert Sunlight Energy Center can be seen several miles away on Interstate 10 at Desert Center on December 19, 2019.

After the press conference, Haaland and Ruiz visited the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight solar farm off Interstate 10 north of Desert Center and visited a BLM-managed natural resource conservation site near Corn Springs. The area was a major site for prehistoric Native American groups. The Corn Springs Petroglyphs are considered one of the finest examples of rock art in the Colorado Desert, spanning a span of 10,000 years.

The desert stops are part of Haaland’s multi-day swing through the southwest, including attending the Western Governors’ Conference in Coronado on Thursday, visiting a Wilmington neighborhood hit hard by pollution due to oil and gas extraction and diesel trucks, speaking with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti about funds to plug old abandoned oil wells, and now heading to Las Vegas for a big conference on the water.

Janet Wilson is a senior environmental reporter for The Desert Sun and co-author of USA Today Climate Point. She can be reached at [email protected] or @ janetwilson66 on Twitter