In a move that discomfited energy industry corporate officials and development interests while heartening residents in the county’s rural areas, the county board of supervisors this week revamped that portion of the county’s general plan dealing with renewable energy projects to ban industrial scale solar and wind projects in 14 specifically identified lightly-to moderately populated rural areas of the county as well as any others in the unincorporated portions of the county bearing the county’s “Rural Living” zoning designation.
Due to federal encouragements and state mandates for electric utilities to acquire more renewable energy resources, utility companies in California for much of the last decade have offered significant incentives to renewable energy project developers. In 2013, the increase in solar renewable energy development applications in the county raised concerns about the adequacy of county development code regulations related to commercial solar energy generation projects. In June 2013 the board adopted an interim emergency ordinance imposing a temporary moratorium on approval of commercial solar energy generation projects. In December 2013, the board adopted an ordinance amending Chapter 84.29 of the San Bernardino County Development Code, relating to renewable energy generation facilities, and terminating the temporary moratorium on commercial solar energy generation projects. The amendments to Chapter 84.29 of the development code established 31 specific findings that must be made for approval of a commercial solar energy generation project, including site-specific evaluation of the suitability of the project site and compatibility with surrounding land uses. Calling for robust community engagement, county officials in 2013 initiated an effort to insert what it labeled a “Renewable Energy and Conservation Element” into the county general plan.
The renewable energy and conservation element, adopted by the board in August 2017 defined county goals and policies related to renewable energy and energy conservation, including policies governing siting and development of renewable energy generation projects. One section recommended in the draft of the renewable energy and conservation element, Policy 4.10, proposed areas where development of commercial renewable energy projects would not be permitted. Because prohibiting renewable energy development as proposed in Policy 4.10 was not supported by the development community, unions representing construction workers, energy company officials and entities seeking or contemplating seeking entitlements to develop renewable energy projects, the board omitted Policy 4.10 from the adopted renewable energy and conservation element, but directed staff to review the proposed policy with the county planning commission for a final recommendation.
After digesting multiple reports from county land use staff including updated and alternative versions of the renewable energy and conservation element and a proposed amendment to Policy 5.2 adding existing energy generation sites to those identified as suitable for such projects, the planning commission held a public hearing on May 24, 2018 to consider amending the renewable energy and conservation element. More than 60 members of the public spoke or registered a position on the item, and were overwhelmingly in support of the original Policy 4.10. Though Chairman Jonathan Weldy and Vice Chairman Raymond Allard during deliberations expressed reservations concerns about Policy 4.10 being overly broad and thereby prohibiting development in a large percentage of the county and that a blanket prohibition in all rural living districts would cover a significant area of the county, much of it uninhabited, the commission voted unanimously 4-0 with the Fourth District seat vacant to recommend to the board that it adopt the addendum to the program snvironmental impact report for the San Bernardino County general plan update carried out in 2007, including the supplemental environmental impact report for the greenhouse gas reduction plan done in 2011. This included a recommendation that the board adopt the original Policy 4.10, but with the suggestion that the board use its discretion in considering moderating the policy so as to avoid a blanket prohibition of utility-oriented renewable energy generation projects in rural living zoning districts and amend Policy 5.2 to add existing energy generation sites to those identified as suitable for utility-oriented renewable energy generation projects.
Yesterday, Thursday February 28, the board of supervisor convened a public hearing to to consider the proposed amendment to the renewable energy and conservation element of the general plan. After hearing a presentation on the scope of the policy and its implication by Terri Rahhal, the head of the county’s land use services division, the board opened the matter for public discussion.
In the course of the four hour and 13 minute hearing, nearly 60 people weighed in on the issue. The board of supervisors, meeting in its temporary meeting facility converted from the cafeteria of the county administrative building at 385 North Arrowhead Avenue in downtown San Bernardino while renovations to the Robert Covington Chamber are ongoing, heard from residents in their immediate presence as well as those in Hesperia and Joshua Tree via simulcast video and audio hookups.
Among those was Jason Eschelman, an electrician and member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the business manager of that union. Eschelman told the board of supervisors, “There’s a lot of misconceptions about utility scale solar. The biggest one is that we could offset the energy by solar rooftops. The average residential solar rooftop is three kilowatts. It would take 200,000 house to create the energy that one of the utility scale solar projects would have, with a burden of an average of $30,000 to $40,000 to the homeowner. Growing up in San Bernardino County, I remember days we couldn’t go outside and play because of pollution, the smog that was out there. We need renewable energy in San Bernardino County, utility scale solar because residential is not enough.”
Developers and utility company representatives expressed the view that the policy will be too restrictive, limiting major energy projects to areas that are already disturbed from agricultural and mining operations or remote areas in or around Amboy, Cadiz, Danby, Essex, Fenner, Goffs, Camp Cady, El Mirage, Hinkley, Four Corners, Kramer Junction and Trona.
James Kelly, the senior director of development with Clearway Energy Group, told the board, “Clearway Energy has wind and solar projects across the United States, including many here in California, and we currently have an application under review with the county for a solar and storage project that would replace the capacity of a recently-retired gas-fired power plant. We believe this project is well-sited in that it utilizes existing infrastructure and is generally consistent with county goals and policies. However, we do believe Policy 4.10, the language would be overly restrictive. It does affect the project in that we have land that is considered rural living zoned. We think the policy does have the potential to direct renewable energy development to other counties in the state, including the jobs and economic benefits associated with those projects. If the board does accept the planning commission’s recommendation to adopt 4.10, we respectfully request that the board consider the revised language submitted by the Large Scale Solar Association as a better balance of interests.”
Sarah Kennington of Pioneer Town and past president of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association, said that in the Morongo Basin there is a “consensus that utility oriented renewable energy is not compatible with rural living communities. Concerns were expressed about the potential adverse recreational, economic and environmental impacts of large scale renewable energy. We know from experience what can and does go wrong. The impacts cannot be mitigated. The desert doesn’t heal. Damage cannot be undone. Dust flies. People get sick. There are no ifs, ands or buts about residents’ positions. We support Policy 4.10 as presented to the board of supervisors over a year ago and was unanimously approved by the planing commissioners in May. This supports the position stated in the Countywide Vision Statement: ‘No industrial scale in community plan areas.’ To be true to the county vision, the original 4.10 is the honest choice. The Large Scale Solar Association recommendations presented today and the alternative 4.10 language presenting to the planning commission are diametrically opposed to the residents’ interests and would certainly open the door to the industrialization of our desert communities. It would result in a dramatic hit to our quality of life, to health and well being of property values and the environment that drives our tourist economy. Adopting, even considering, the Solar Association language at this time guarantees disputes, community interest vs. developers who profit from large-scale renewable energy. I’m exhausted to just think about the prospect: all those negatives and no true honest return to the county or its citizens. Similar industry proposals, the alternative 4.10 language were considered by the planning commission. Public comments spoke against it then and the planning commissioners unanimously agreed. If the residents’ position reflected in the original 4.10 language is not implemented, we will know who you are listening to, not the residents in the county’s unincorporated rural communities. There’s a reason the two incorporated towns in the Morongo Basin – Yucca Valley and Twentynine Palms – have ordinances preventing large-scale renewable energy within city limits. The renewable energy and conservation element was to encourage small-scale renewable energy production to meet local energy demands. Don’t throw the surrounding communities to the wolves. Protect the unincorporated desert residents.”
County Land Use Services Director Terry Rahhal said the county had also put conditions into the county’s policy that call for the county getting from power plant applicants “financial guarantees in place to implement a decommissioning plan to restore the site if a developer or operator were to walk away from it.”
“There are tens of thousands of acres for these projects to go where they don’t impact any areas within the desert or communities,” said 1st District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, adding that the county is already the largest producer of solar electric energy in the state. “In this case, there are alternatives that need to be looked at that don’t disturb, or impact, or create any loss of jobs.”
The board of supervisors voted 4-1, with Supervisor Curt Hagman dissenting, to prohibit utility-oriented renewable energy development in rural zones and the unincorporated communities of Bloomington, Muscoy, Bear Valley, Crest Forest, Hilltop, Lake Arrowhead, Lytle Creek, Oak Glen, Homestead Valley, Joshua Tree, Lucerne Valley, Morongo Valley, Oak Hills and Phelan/Pinon Hills. The board did, however, insert language into the policy allowing developers to apply for a general plan amendment, or a boundary change, if they have a site that meets the county’s criteria but is within the prohibited zones. Such exceptions will require the approval of the board.
There is no restriction on modest-sized renewable-energy projects, such as community-oriented renewable energy, like rooftop and parking lot solar panels. The newly-adopted definition of large-scale or utility-oriented renewable energy projects is a solar or wind farm in which more than half of the energy generated is for use outside the local area which is sent to the energy grid.
More than 20 such projects have been approved in the past decade. There are eight further projects currently being reviewed by the county.