News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Problems with Big Desert Solar Makes the Papers

Solar at Zzyzx. A much larger solar proposal nearby has the Desert Studies Center worried | Photo: Mike Baird/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The politics of large public-lands solar projects in the California Desert seem to be heating up a bit, as this past weekend saw not one but two prominent newspaper articles in leading Southern California daily papers discussing the potential downsides of utility-scale solar projects in the state's outback.

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Both reporters who filed stories this weekend, Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times and David Danelski of the Riverside Press-Enterprise, have long track records covering the utility-scale solar sector. Cart's earlier work in particular has attracted the ire of some in the industry.

This weekend's story by Cart described officials in desert counties who're having second thoughts about the impact of large solar projects on their county budgets. In Inyo, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, local governments who had warmly welcomed solar development projects are now starting to think they might have gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop. Lost revenue from tourism, increased expenditures for fire protection and improving infrastructure, and the potential for lost tax revenue as mitigation lands get turned over to the Feds have some county spokespeople nervous.

Cart mentions Inyo County representatives who are starting to wonder whether BrightSource's proposed Hidden HIlls project in the Tecopa area might not actually be a net loss for the county. As Cart writes,

An economic consultant hired by the county found that property tax revenue would be a fraction of the customary amount because portions of the plant qualifiy for a solar tax exclusion. Fewer than 10 local workers would land permanent positions -- and just 5% of the construction jobs would be filled by county residents. And construction workers are likely to spend their money across the nearby state line, in Nevada.

As Cart mentions, Riverside County was early out of the gate in working to mitigate such potential losses, with that county's proposed 2% solar franchise fee for utility-scale projects in the county. Riverside County is home to the largest of the proposed BLM Solar Energy Zones. Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit, originator of the fee idea, told Cart:

[The solar developers] brought in six guys with three-piece suits, a PowerPoint presentation, and said, "Your 2% is going to cost us $3 million a year." I thought, "Wait a minute. That means you are going to make $150 million a year...." And they wanted to give us $96,000. It's a pittance compared to the loss of value and impact of these huge projects.

Meanwhile, in Inyo County, county official Kevin Carunchio told Cart of his skepticism over Hidden Hills developer BrightSource's projections over benefits to that county of the project. "We've got county residents living in cargo containers near the solar site, seniors living in trailer parks on fixed incomes -- they all manage to pay their 1% property tax fee," Carunchio told Cart. "Nobody is outright against these projects on ideological grounds or land-use principles. We don't think we should have to bear the cost for energy that is being exported to metropolitan areas."

In the Press-Enterprise, David Danelski covers Bechtel's proposed Soda Mountains solar facility, formerly owned by Caithness. The 350-megawatt project would straddle Interstate 15 just west of Baker, and Danelski details concerns that the project would pose unacceptable potential impacts to the wildlife of the Mojave National Preserve, right next door.

The potential effects, Danelski says, include impairing the water supply for the endangered Mojave tui chub next door at the Zzyzyx Desert Studies Center, and effects on the desert bighorn sheep that frequent the area.

Danelski quotes a National Park Service representative as opposing the project:

Ted Weasma, a renewable energy specialist for the park service, said the service opposes the creation of what he described as "a large industrial facility" at the doorstep of the national preserve. It would be harmful to wildlife and other natural resources, Weasma said.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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