By Nichola Groom
(Reuters) - An ambitious plan to put California's renewable energy projects in areas where the environment will face the least harm is getting a major overhaul after years of delays and criticism from developers, environmentalists and counties.
Started in 2008 under then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan aims to identify 22.5 million acres of land for solar, wind and geothermal projects to meet California's ambitious goal of sourcing one-third of its electricity from renewable sources.
It assumes that 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects could be built in the California desert by 2040.
But in a joint announcement on Tuesday, federal and state agencies said a major portion of the plan would go back to the drawing board as counties fear losing control over what happens on their turf, conservationists demand more wildlife protection, and companies seek quick approvals of development permits.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will proceed to designate development zones and conservation areas on roughly 10 million acres of federal lands that faced less opposition.
The rest of the plan will be implemented in phases. A timeline has yet to be determined.
The plan has taken far longer to execute than expected because it requires input from dozens of interested parties and jurisdictions as well as major scientific analysis.
The review comes five months after the DRECP published a draft, after years of consultation with various groups, which received more than 12,000 public comments. County officials, conservationists and project developers alike opposed the current plan.
"Right now it's difficult to wrap their arms around all of the moving parts," Jim Kenna, California state director for the BLM, said in an interview.
County officials said the plan needs to go a lot further in considering local needs.
"The emphasis on conservation is placing too many private lands off limits," said Lorelei Oviatt, county planning and community development director for Kern County. "What if we need to build a new hospital? What if we need to build a new airport?"
The DRECP is a collaboration between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Energy Commission and California Department of Fish and Wildife.
(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Terry Wade and Richard Chang)