Board Holds Off On Limiting Solar Plants To Disturbed Land

Close to two-thirds of San Bernardino County’s 20,105 square miles lie within the Mojave Desert, an element of geographical reality that has thrust the county to the forefront of the worldwide renewable energy revolution. But that distinction is a mantle that is, somewhat remarkably, only reluctantly worn by many of the region’s residents and its political and industrial leaders. Part of what is remarkable is the paradoxical attitude that environmentalists both in and outside the county have with regard to solar farms.
Last week, some four years into the process of setting a comprehensive policy with regard to standards on renewable energy projects, the county board of supervisors has extended its decision on the county land use division’s recommendations and returned the plan to the county planning commission for further review.
San Bernardino County already hosts two significant solar farms – the Ivanpa and the Four Corners solar plants. Yet, given its vast expanse of desert, San Bernardino County has hardly scratched the surface with regard to industrial scale solar power collection. Despite San Bernardino County’s theoretical position at the epicenter of the solar energy boom – then-President Barack Obama once rather flippantly mused that by simply covering the entirety of California’s Mojave Desert solar fields that all of the United States’ energy needs could be met – those who live in the desert have designs on the sprawling arid landscape that are at odds with turning it into a massive electricity generating station.
This aversion to the use of the desert for producing clean energy has thwarted the attainment of the optimistic renewable energy goals that have been idealistically embraced at several levels and highlights environmentalists’ internal conflicts. Solar energy is relatively non-polluting and represents far less ecological havoc than does burning fossil fuels. It presents none of the long term danger of dealing with spent nuclear waste from atomic power plants. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions is an immense advantage that solar plants provide. Nevertheless, some environmentalists maintain that solar projects are too damaging to the immediate environs to be allowed to proceed.
Mojave Desert species, such as the desert tortoise, roaming bighorn sheep and the tui chub, a type of minnow, which proliferates in springs and ponds in the area, are endangered by such undertakings, one school of environmentalists insist.
While the priorities of the Donald Trump Administration are somewhat different from the Barack Obama administration, the federal government has in general trended toward the concept of accelerated development of alternative energy sources. Early on in his tenure in office, Barack Obama enthusiastically embraced expediting renewable energy efforts, and some $80 billion was earmarked to facilitate such programs through grants, low- or no-interest loans, tax breaks and the like.
In an effort to facilitate alternative energy projects and bypass the knockdown, drag-out fights that had in nearly every case delayed and in some cases derailed solar energy proposals, the Obama administration took action in the form of then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s creation of 17 solar energy zones in the Southwest deemed optimum for harnessing the sun’s radiating power. Those zones were selected in some measure because they are believed to be less wildlife intensive than other portions of the American desert.
None of those zones fell within San Bernardino County. Rather, the bureau designated one 213-square mile solar power development zone in eastern Riverside County along Interstate 10 from Desert Center to Blythe and another slightly smaller area in Imperial County abutting the Mexican border. Projects developed in those two areas were to be favored with fast-tracked project reviews.
The creation of the zones did not preclude, however, project proponents seeking licensing and approval for projects elsewhere in the desert. Several investors were still prepared to pursue projects in San Bernardino County.
The promise of the Obama Administration’s promotion of solar power was dashed, however, in some measure by the Solyndra scandal, in which Solyndra obtained the first loan guarantee under President Obama’s economic stimulus program, a $535 million U.S. Energy Department loan guarantee, largely on the strength of its patent on promising and cutting-edge cylindrical panels of copper indium gallium selenide thin film solar cells. An 89 percent drop in silicon prices shortly after the company received that loan led to the company being unable to compete with conventional solar panels made of crystalline silicon. The company filed for bankruptcy on September 1, 2011. The loan program allowed Solyndra to dodge the lion’s share of its $528 million in losses. But the U.S. Department of Justice objected to Solyndra’s bankruptcy plan and a criminal probe was launched into whether Solyndra’s corporate officer misrepresented the firm’s finances to the government in seeking the loan and whether they had engaged in other acts of accounting fraud. Meanwhile, Solyndra, directly and through its employees, was making hefty political donations to Democratic candidates all over the country. Solyndra’s owners, Argonaut Ventures I LLC and Madrone Partners LP were simultaneously realizing tax benefits of between $875 million and $975 million of net operating losses, while more senior creditors, including the Department of Energy, which had put up the $535 million loan guarantee, received nothing.
The adverse publicity soured the Obama Administration and Congress with regard to the aggressive solar power agenda.
Meanwhile, back in California’s Mojave Desert, several companies, with greater and lesser success, pursued small, medium and large solar projects, sometimes with government subsidies, other times with investment capital. Environmentalists have in many cases made objections to large solar projects in California’s vast outback – such as the Ivanpah Solar Project near the Nevada border at the northeast end of San Bernardino County, BrightSource Renewables, LLC’s solar project near Kramer Junction and KRoad Power’s Calico Solar project. In addition there has been resistance to more modest projects in areas of the desert closer to where people live.
Solar project proponents soon encountered a Catch-22 in San Bernardino County. Environmentalists insisted that no solar projects – neither large or small – be located in remote, pristine or undisturbed areas of the desert. When proponents then sought out so-called disturbed land – meaning property that had already been developed or otherwise utilized – nearby residents raised the opposite objection, saying the projects should be allowed only in places far removed from even the most moderately-populated areas. The practical effect was there was virtually nowhere where solar projects were welcome. Proponent BrightSource Energy and its investors NRG Solar and Google were able to overcome virulent objections of environmentalists to construct the largest solar project ever built on land leased from the federal government located fifty miles northwest of Needles and about five miles from the Nevada border at Ivanpah in northeast San Bernardino County. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System consists of 173,500 heliostats – paired mirrors that track the sun. The sun’s rays then refocus the captured thermal energy onto three elements within a 459-foot tall towers. Those elements can reach a temperature of 1,000 degrees. Each element heats a condenser that boils water, creating steam to power a turbine that generates electricity. The facility began commercial generation of power on December 30, 2013.
Another proposed massive solar project in the Mojave, the Soda Mountain Solar Powered Electrical Generating Station, never achieved actuation. Likewise planned for public land to be leased from the government, the filing for the Soda Mountain Project was originally made in 2007 by New York-based Caithness Corp., which proposed establishing solar fields on both sides of Interstate 15 between Razor and Zzyzx roads. The Bechtel Corporation is the largest construction and engineering firm in the United States, having been founded more than a century ago by Warren Bechtel and later headed by John McCone, a former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 1930s, Bechtel was involved in the construction of the Hoover Dam.
Biologists, however, expressed concerns over the project’s potential impacts on indigenous flora and fauna at the proposed project site. Large numbers of desert creosote on the property would be displaced, environmentalist said, though those plants are not in danger of extinction. The environmentalists likewise raised concern about desert tortoises, which live throughout the Mojave. Surveys of the property done in 2009 by wildlife biologists commissioned by Caithness found no tortoises, which are threatened with extinction, on the property. Threats to the tui chub were also a major environmental concern. Bechtel/Soda Mountain Solar, LLC, functioning under the title Regenerate Corporation, intended to draw water from the desert aquifer to periodically wash the solar panels’ mirrors. Environmentalists have misgivings about a drawdown of the aquifer’s level, which could result in the parching of area’s springs and ponds, resulting in the death of the colonies of tui chub.
Originally planned as a 350 megawatt facility that would meet the domestic electrical demands of 170,000 households without the burning of fossil fuels or production of greenhouse gasses, Bechtel agreed to scale it back to one with a 287-megawatt output on a 1,767 acre-footprint. But in August 2016 the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors denied both a ground water permit and the certification of the environmental review document for the project.
A recurrent theme in the protests against the Soda Mountain proposal was that it would have altered what those opponents said was “pristine desert land.”
In February of this year, a significantly smaller solar project, a 60 megawatt solar energy facility on 483 acres in Lucerne Valley was given preliminary clearance by the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Division to proceed with its construction application. Florida-based NextEra Energy must now obtain environmental certification for the project pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act. As the lead agency on the project, the county must accept the environmental impact report that Nextera is undertaking.
Further, in order to construct its proposed 484-acre, 60-megawatt project, Nextera Energy Resources, LLC must be granted a conditional use permit from the county. While the conditional use permit process is often little more than a formality, obtaining approval of an environmental impact report is a higher bar. The company preparing that environmental impact report is Michael Baker International. Based upon the county land use services division’s evaluation of that report and its recommendation, the board of supervisors will later this year make a determination as to whether the project should be allowed to proceed.
In the meantime, San Bernardino County officials, hyperconscious that the county is on the threshold of “sustainable energy revolution, is undertaking a comprehensive review – indeed a proposed complete makeover – of the renewable energy conservation element of the county’s general plan.
In a hearing that was held at the end of the August 8 board of supervisors meeting, more than one hundred people were in attendance and 55 of them – Laura Abram, Ileene Anderson, Alex Artiaga, Steve Bardwell, Johnny Cahgey, Scott Castro, Michael Cavasas, Cat Celebreeze, Sabra Chili, Chris Corsello, Justin Dillman, Tom Egan, Yuda Fersht, , Susan Gladding, Brian Hammer, Sue Hammer, Robert Howells, Norman Jensen, Peggy Lee Kennedy, Sarah Kennington, Jonell Kosa, Edward LaRue, Bill Lembright, Renee Lynn, Tony Malone, Tim Mason, Joel McCabe, Steve Mills, John Monohan, Paul Moreno, Dennis Morrison, Neil Nadler, John Orta, Linda Parker, Bill Perez, Jim Porter, Richard Ravana, Clifford Reed, Mark Rostafin, Walter Royle, Thomas Ruiz, Claudia Sall, Jim Sargent, Dilip Sheth, John Smith, John Stauffer, Lorrie Steely, Ted Stimpfel, Tom Tomlinson, Rebecca Unger, Glen Van Dam, Robert Vega, Fred Viszneri, Peter Whittingham, John Zemankie – weighed in on the issue.
Staff gave the board a document for approval that called for preference for small-scale accessory solar and wind power over utility-oriented projects, a high priority for “roof-top and parking lot” solar panels, efforts to offset damage to soil, air quality and the free movement of wildlife, the minimization of dust disturbance control and profligate water consumption during construction and long-term operation, the minimization of visual impacts created by projects, more stringent siting requirements for utility-oriented projects than community-oriented renewable energy efforts, the limitation of utility-scale renewable energy projects to five so-called development focus areas as well as disturbed and degraded lands, and prohibiting utility-oriented renewable energy projects in community plan areas and in rural living land use districts.
Under policy section 4.10 of the document, the county had contemplated designated five areas of “disturbed” lands – in and around Amboy, El Mirage, Hinkley, Kramer Junction and Trona – where industrial scale projects are permissible, providing 80,000 acres where such mega-projects will be facilitated.
Based on a motion by supervisor James Ramos, the board accepted the element document as recommended by the planning commission, with the proviso that the exclusion of renewable energy policy contained in section 4.10 that essentially would prevent massive projects outside of Amboy, El Mirage, Hinkley, Kramer Junction and Trona, be revisited and re-examined by the planning commission. The board also asked that there be deletion to a 10 megawatt specification on projects.
After the planning commission’s review, the adjustments are to be brought back to the board with any revised recommendations.
“We’re not fighting these projects, we just don’t want them in our neighborhoods,” said one Lucerne Valley resident, Bill Lembright.
The Alliance for Desert Preservation said the proposed policy offers insufficient protection to Apple Valley, Lucerne Valley and Helendale.
Supervisor Josie Gonzales indicated that there had to be a balance between the need for renewable energy and the impact the projects will have on existing neighborhoods. She sought an assurance that before things were finalized that an examination of the policy and the potential “unintended consequences” it might have would be examined.
“I’d like to be able to explore, how we mitigate, how we implement steps or standards that will reduce, and preferably eliminate, those impacts,” she said. “I ultimately want a long-lasting decision that is maybe not most welcome, but definitely has the best intentions.”
Third District Supervisor James Ramos, angered some by withdrawing the 4.10 provision from what was voted upon, which some said would likely result in industrial-scale solar projects being constructed outside of just Trona, El Mirage, Kramer Junction, Hinkley and Amboy in the future. Ramos said he wanted there to be more discussion and more public comment before such limitations are finalized. –Mark Gutglueck

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