From 1,500 feet up in the air, the 202,000 acres of the Riverside East solar zone includes panoramic views of desert washes running off the mountains and snaking across the desert floor, with patches of desert scrub following the lines.
But that landscape is gradually changing and, within years, could become a checkerboard of massive solar plants.
“As more and more places in the world become developed, there are so few places like it. It's a part of our legacy,” said David Lamfrom, California Desert program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The group is among several environmental organizations that are still raising concerns over the solar plants that, while eventually creating clean, renewable energy, also affect open desert land full of endangered and threatened species the groups wish to protect.
On Thursday morning — hours ahead of a Palm Desert meeting to solicit public comment on a solar zone environmental report — Lamfrom rode shotgun in a six-seater plane flying a small group of reporters over the zone, a swath of public land stretching from the eastern edge of Joshua Tree National Park to Blythe.
Two projects are under construction in the zone, another is delayed and seven more are proposed.
A plan to reduce Riverside East to 147,000 acres and other revisions to draft federal guidelines on solar development on public lands were the focus of the Palm Desert public hearing.
Lamfrom's group and the Wilderness Society organized the flyover as part of their efforts to push for more solar development on private, previously disturbed land versus public lands such as Riverside East, a theme repeated by the area residents and environmental advocates throughout Thursday's meeting.
About 44 people turned out for the event, with 13 speaking.
“Rooftops are the way to go,” said Brendan Hughes, a Joshua Tree resident. “We need another energy policy; we won't get there by destroying public land.”
“We in Riverside County have done our share” for solar development, said Ricki Brodie of Palm Desert. “We have to protect the rest of the desert. If it's gone, people won't be retiring here.”
But solar industry representatives said the proposed revisions to the solar zone plan cut too much public land from potential development and put additional limits on the technologies they can use.
Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Sacramento-based trade group Large-Scale Solar Association, pointed to proposals capping the height of photovoltaic installations at 10 feet to minimize their visual impacts.
“The PEIS (Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement) is designed to guide solar development on public land, and it's not really doing that very well,” she said. “What it's doing is dissuading solar; it's creating disincentives.”
“It's important to allow for development in appropriate areas outside the zones,” said Adam Eventov, a spokesman for BrightSource Energy, developer of the Ivanpah solar project in San Bernardino County. “Suitable lands should not be placed off limits and exclusions should be strictly limited to those necessary to protect critically sensitive resources.”
Thursday's meeting came at a critical time for solar development — in the Coachella Valley and nationwide.
The collapse of Solyndra, the solar manufacturer that received $535 million in federal loan guarantees, has triggered congressional investigations and a legislative atmosphere in which future federal subsidies for renewable energy development are all at risk. Moving forward, large-scale projects may be harder to fund.
In the meantime, construction on two solar projects off Interstate 10 in the Riverside East zone — Desert Sunlight and Genesis — is beginning to deliver some of the jobs and economic growth their developers promised.
More than 175 workers, including at least 100 local hires, now work at the 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project near Desert Center.
Further east, about 125 workers are at the 250-megawatt Genesis project, with 80 percent coming from local unions, said Steven Stengel, spokesman for project developer NextEra Energy.The debate over solar development on public land has opened up divisions among environmental groups, although Jennifer Dickson, spokeswoman for The Wilderness Society, downplayed the internal controversy.
“You hear about conflict because we're talking,” she said. “There's a lot more consensus than people believe.”
Riverside East is the largest of 24 solar zones originally singled out for solar development in the proposed federal plan.
The Department of the Interior decided to revise its original draft of the plan, released in December 2010, after it received more than 80,000 emails, letters and other input during a public comment period.
Federal scenarios for Riverside East originally envisioned 80 percent of the region covered with solar farms.
So far, three projects have been approved for the region, with two now under construction and a third, the 1,000-megawatt Blythe project, on hold.
“There's been a scattershot approach,” said Dickson, who believes government policies should be based on the region's future energy needs.
“How much power will we need and where? It might not be a smart model to develop where there's not a need.”
Federal officials working on the guidelines said they are looking for balance. The deadline for public comments on the revisions is Jan. 27, with a final report expected in July 2012 and final approval the following October.
Carl Zichella of the Natural Resources Defense Council sounded a note of urgency, noting that the impacts of climate change are being felt worldwide.“There is no impact free energy source,” he said “We need to look at the best sites regardless of ownership.We don't have the luxury of looking at this from a local perspective. Ignoring the best resource areas in the world is not a way to show leadership.”