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Inyo County Growing Leary of Solar Proposal

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Artist's conception, Hidden Hills Solar project | Image courtesy BrightSource Energy

The Inyo County Board of Supervisors has long had a reputation among environmental activists as being relentlessly in favor of industrial development on the county's undeveloped desert lands -- 9,400 square miles of which are public lands. But it may turn out that even Inyo County has limits. The county's Board of Supervisors is troubled by a recent report prepared by County staff that says the proposed 500-megawatt Hidden HIlls solar project near Tecopa will cost the county $22 million in increased services.

The project's developer, BrightSource Energy, contests the report's findings, and a competing report issued by the California Energy Commission (CEC) projects $61 million in increased county revenue from the Hidden HIlls project over its proposed lifespan.

The project would incorporate two 750-foot power towers surrounded by hundreds of thousands of mirrored heliostats on 3,280 acres of private land between Tecopa and Pahrump, Nevada.

What's behind the differences in projected bottom line? For the most part, they stem from different assumptions over the degree of county services the project will require. The county maintains that the project's several thousand workers descending on the site will require hiring seven deputy sheriffs and extensive repairs to the Old Spanish Trail Road, which connects Pahrump and Tecopa. County staff estimates expenditures related to the Hidden HIlls project at $90 million. BrightSource disagrees, projecting a temporary hire of two deputies, and claiming it will handle repairs to the road if necessary.

Inyo County Supervisor Rick Pucci has gone on the record as deeply troubled by the difference in bottom-line forecasts. "This huge discrepancy really bothers me," Pucci told reporter Benett Kessler of SierraWave. "We can't gamble with the public's money."

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to accept staff's assessment on Tuesday. Both the County and BrightSource agree that the firm will pay at least $7.8 million in sales taxes, but BrightSource is concerned that the county may seek to recover the rest of that $90 million from the state, which would likely seek to recoup those losses from the company.

BrightSource hopes to begin construction on Hidden HIlls in 2013, and to start delivering power to Pacific Gas & Electric in 2015.

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