Riverside County has cut the fee it wants to charge for utility-scale solar power developments in the county by two-thirds, following a contentious campaign by the solar industry to get it rolled back. In a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the county's Board of Supervisors reduced the fee from the $450 per acre per year, which was first proposed in 2011, to $150. The vote settles a legal battle between the county and solar developers.
Soon after the Board of Supervisors approved the $450 per acre fee in November 2011, two solar trade associations -- the Independent Energy Producers Association and the Large-scale Solar Association -- sued to block the levy, calling it an "illegal solar tax" and claming the fee violated a state law prohibiting new taxes on solar facilities until 2017.
The solar groups even staged demonstrations in Riverside to oppose the measure, trucking supporters into town wearing t-shirts saying "Don't Tax The Sun." At the time, ReWire thought this was a PR coup: a clear slogan, four syllables long, and to rebut it you'd need to get all nuanced: "Don't privatize public lands for solar without providing some compensation to local government" just doesn't have the same ring.
PR brilliance aside, the argument that the fee was an illegal tax is now moot: Tuesday's supervisorial vote seals the deal on a settlement approved by Riverside County Superior Court judge Craig Riemer last week that ends the groups' suit. Under the terms of the settlement, the solar groups drop any right to challenge the fee's legality.
Aside from lowering the per-acre cost, the new fee structure also removes a local hiring incentive baked into the original law. Under the old setup, companies would have received a $1,500 credit toward the fee for each local person they hired for the project in question. That credit has been removed from the new rule.
The lone "no" vote was provided by County Supervisor Jeffrey Stone, a business owner from Temecula whose colorful antics we've covered here in the past at KCET. A bit counterintuitively given his previous pro-business political positions, Stone pointed out the damage that unbridled solar development might do to the county's considerable but not particularly fungible scenery. As K Kaufman reported Tuesday in the Desert Sun, Stone said of his vote:
"These panels are going to blanket the eastern portion of this county so when you drive from the windmills to Blythe you are going to see a sea of black panels that is going to be obtrusive to Riverside County. "I don't think we're getting appropriate revenue to mitigate the obstacles to what is supposed to be a scenic highway. "
Stone called for a slightly higher fee and a citizen referendum on the issue.
It's unsurprising that this issue would come to a head in Riverside County first: the county is essentially Ground Zero for the Obama Administration's public lands solar policy. Of the 285,000 acres across the west designated as Solar Energy Zones (SEZs) by the Administration's Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, more than half (147,910 acres) is in the Riverside East SEZ, which spans the eastern half of the county from Joshua Tree National Park to Blythe..
The fee was initially proposed in part to recover costs to the county for increasing essential services to the very remote areas slated for solar development, as well as to make up the likely loss in revenue from decreased tourism when people decide to visit less industrialized parts of the desert. No funds have yet been collected from solar facilities: an unrelated but similar $600,000 franchise fee paid to the county by NextEra, GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of America for their Desert Sunlight solar facility near Eagle Mountain has mostly gone to paying legal fees related to the suit by the Independent Energy Producers Association and the Large-scale Solar Association.
[An earlier version of this piece mistakenly said that Desert Sunlight's project developer First Solar was paying that franchise fee. ReWire regrets the error.]