Advisory Group Steering County Away From Massive Desert Solar Projects

(November 15)  MORONGO BASIN — A self-styled committee devoted to evaluating options and guidelines for the development of renewable energy in the middle and eastern Mojave Desert that has been adopted by Third 3rd District San Bernardino County Supervisor James Ramos’ as an advisory panel is recommending that wind and solar fields be built in areas of the desert that have already been developed.
In June, the county board of supervisors passed a 45-day moratorium on commercial solar projects in the county’s unincorporated areas. On July 23 the board approved a 10-month extension of the ban on new commercial solar projects to allow county staff to refine its regulations with respect to solar fields.
A Catch-22 situation has developed with regard to renewable energy projects, which, according to one school of environmentalists, represent an ecological advance over traditional conventional power sources, such as fossil fuels. Other environmentalists decry the ecological havoc and visual blight on the natural landscape massive solar power or wind power projects impose, including their disturbance or destruction of the habitat of certain species. They want to prevent any future renewable energy projects from being located in pristine or undisturbed areas.
But county residents living in proximity to where several solar projects have been approved or are proposed have complained the solar farms are a too-intensive use that clashes with the nature of their rural residential neighborhoods and represent unresolved land-use and zoning conflicts. Thus, the places where large solar or wind projects can be located anywhere in San Bernardino County’s vast desert outback without triggering some level of protest are virtually non-existent.
In the Route 62 Corridor, stretching from Morongo Valley to Twentyine Palms, in the communities of Morongo Valley, Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree, and Twentynine Palms, as well as in other remote desert areas such as Pioneer Town, Landers,  Black Lava Butte & Flat Top Mesa, residents have proven resistant to solar and wind farms being built in their environs.
Nevertheless, members of the Basin Energy Assessment Team, the aforementioned group of residents recently embraced by Supervisor Ramos as sapient guides with regard to the county’s forthcoming renewable energy development policy, are prodding county and local officials to adopt codes that would restrict  energy development to those portions of the desert environment that have already been developed or which are inhabited.
At its most recent meeting on November 1, the Basin Energy Assessment Team, which now boasts more than a dozen members, voiced the perspective that solar and wind projects should be placed in industrially zoned areas and should incorporate pre-existing infrastructure and structures as part of their projects to the extent possible.
On a very real level, the group’s advocacy runs counter to the flow of things at both the federal and state levels, where renewable energy development is being encouraged. The state of California is pushing for the streamlining of the permitting of renewable energy projects and meeting its own  Renewable Portfolio Standard, the provisions of Senate Bill 11-2X, signed into law by Governor Edmund Brown, Jr. on April 12, 2011, as Public Resources Code § 25740, requiring California to meet the 33 percent renewable energy portfolio standard by 2020 and the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which calls for the approval of  10,000 megawatts of non-hydropower renewable energy generation on public lands by 2015. In the face of this, the Basin Energy Assessment Team is calling for a far less aggressive development of renewable energy.
A case in point is the online brief the group has put together called the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Resources. On that site, the group advocates the use of solar panels and solar film on existing structures as the most efficacious way of exploiting solar power, rather than building solar fields. On that site, the group says that it offers “a library of analytical writings that demonstrate the economic and conservation benefits of point-of-use renewable energy generation in the already built environment. Point-of-use installation is the cleanest and least expensive way to ramp up renewable energy generation immediately, all while creating the highest number of local jobs, preserving and improving property values, protecting local water resources, and boosting the local economy.’’
Basin Energy Assessment Team members are attempting to steer Ramos, and by extension the entire county, into adopting policies that will attenuate the more aggressive elements of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan and will impose strict water use regulations on solar projects, prohibit solar projects that would have a deleterious impact on the area’s tourism industry  and place restrictions on projects that would hurt the environment, scenic views, wildlife and natural resources.
While many desert residents hail the moratorium and the cautious approach Ramos, the board of supervisors and the county’s land use services division are taking with regard to the consideration of solar and wind projects, solar project proponents say the county is losing a vast economic opportunity by kowtowing to the opponents of large scale solar and wind projects.
Scott Mazzola, vice president of Apple Valley-based Desert Solar, said that while the county and its land use services division dither over the zoning issues and standards to be applied to solar fields, individuals, companies, corporations and investors interested in pursuing solar development are growing impatient, losing money, contemplating taking their proposals elsewhere or have already pulled up stakes and moved outside of the county.
Noting that Desert Solar long ago committed heavily toward the concept of establishing medium and large scale solar projects throughout the Mojave Desert and that “We’ve spent several years investing time, resources, money to make these projects work,” Mazzola complained the moratorium and its extension has now upset his company’s timetable and cost it a considerable amount of money as well as projected future revenue.
“By extending this out as long as you have, you have really… devastated us,” he told county land use services staff  at a county workshop two months ago. That workshop was hosted by the land use services division to gather input from residents with regard to the guidelines they want instituted in the county code relating to solar projects.
Mazzola said Desert Solar had been forced to abandon its San Bernardino County projects in favor of seeking approval in other Southern California jurisdictions where there is less uncertainty as to the standards and restrictions his company will encounter. “We have literally moved two $70 million projects from San Bernardino County to other locations,” he said.

Leave a Reply