A trio of solar energy projects in the southern California desert expected to add more than 1 gigawatt of power to the state’s electrical grid are the first to be approved as part of the Dept. of the Interior's Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) announced in December 2021. The plan focuses on 10.8 million acres of public lands in the desert regions of seven California counties.

Construction of the massive Oberon Solar Project in eastern Riverside County was approved July 13 by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). When completed next year, the project will generate up to 500MW of renewable energy and include 500MW of battery storage. 

Two other projects located in the same area, Arica and Victory Pass, were also green lit this month. These projects are slated to generate 265MW and 200MW, respectively, and could include up to 400 megawatts of battery storage. San Francisco-based Clearway Energy Group, the owner of both projects, estimates the pair will cost approximately $700 million to construct.

The projects are part of the Biden administration’s efforts to modernize power infrastructure in the southwest U.S. by permitting 25GW of solar, wind and geothermal production on public lands no later than 2025. According to the BLM, the DRECP provides a pathway to facilitate permitting for renewable energy development "while conserving unique and valuable desert ecosystems and providing outdoor recreation opportunities." 

The program applies to utility-scale wind, solar and geothermal energy projects that cannot avoid or minimize all impacts to wildlife. It provides a means to accelerate permitting while establishing methods to compensate for the environmental impacts. To approve the sites for renewable energy projects, the Dept. of the Interior and the BLM say they will work with Tribal governments, local communities, state regulators, industry and other federal agencies.

“The BLM is committed to making significant contributions to the nation’s renewable energy portfolio and has approved more than 120 renewable energy projects on public land generating more than 12,000 megawatts,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning in a news release. 

Construction on the Oberon Solar Project began July 11, with an estimated completion of September 2023. IP Oberon, LLC, a subsidiary of Intersect Power, LLC, is the project owner and SOLV is the main contractor. 

The Oberon project is located on approximately 5,000 acres of desert land near Desert Center. The Arica and Victory Pass projects take up approximately 4,000 acres in the same area. Each will connect to the state grid via Southern California Edison’s (SCE) existing 500 kV Red Bluff Substation. 

The area near Desert Center is rapidly becoming a solar energy hub. In addition to the three newly approved projects, three solar power generation plants are already in operation nearby; the 550MW Desert Sunlight, 214 MW Desert Harvest, and 500 MW Palen Solar. One other, the Easley Solar and Green Hydrogen Project, has recently been proposed.

The solar plant approvals come at the same time that federal officials are working to improve transmission resources for southwest solar projects. Earlier this month, the Dept. of the Interior approved Ten West Link Transmission Line project, which will facilitate increased renewable energy development and delivery in Arizona and California. The 125-mile, 500-kV line will connect existing substations near Tonopah, Ariz., and Blythe, Calif., on the border with Arizona.