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Inyo County Nixes Cap on Solar Plant Sizes

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One of California's most-scenic, least-developed counties just approved a renewable energy development plan | Photo: Frank Kovalchek/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Meeting in Independence Tuesday, the Inyo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously not to adopt a strict limit on the size of solar facilities the county's Planning Commission recommended earlier in March, and cleared the way for solar development in a desert valley that some environmental activists say is crucial to the health of the Amargosa River.

But the Supervisors did bar solar thermal power plants from consideration in Inyo County, citing concerns over the technology's likely impact on groundwater, and agreed to keep solar power plants out of another scenic valley in the Amargosa River drainage.

The 20-megawatt maximum size for solar facilities proposed by the county's Planning Commission would have forced government and industry to rethink the way they developed solar in Inyo County, and elsewhere in California. The 5-0 vote on the County's Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment thus took place under an unusual degree of scrutiny, especially for a rural county that has so far been a bit of a renewable energy backwater compared to some other places in the California desert.

"We're being watched by state and federal agencies," said District 5 Supervisor Matt Kingsley of Lone Pine, "and by local and national environmental groups."

Observers weren't too surprised that the Planning Commission's earlier recommendations to cap projects at 20 megawatts didn't fly with the Supervisors: county staff had advised rather strongly against the cap in the days after the Commission made its recommendation.

Earlier drafts of the county's Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment had come under fire from environmental activists for designating large Solar Energy Development Areas, or SEDAs, in a number of ecologically and scenically important spots, such as the Chicago Valley near the east county town of Shoshone, as well as in a number of locations up and down the axis of the county's world-class tourist draw, the Owens Valley.

The final Amendment eliminated the Chicago Valley SEDA, and reduced the size of SEDAs along Owens Lake and in Rose Valley near Olancha, as well as another SEDA in Pearsonville just south of the Owens Valley proper.

To the chagrin of some environmental protection activists, a SEDA in the Charleston View area between Tecopa and Pahrump was retained in the final version of the Amendment. Groundwater in Charleston View eventually feeds into the Amargosa River, causing concern among the river's advocates that groundwater pumping for solar panel washing could harm both the river and its complement of beleaguered species, including the critically endangered Amargosa vole.

As a way to address groundwater concerns at least in part, the Amendment will require any solar developers in the Charleston View SEDA, or in the equally arid Sandy Valley SEDA some miles south, to retire existing water rights in those basins to match their expected water use.

Environmentalist reaction to the vote was somewhat nuanced. "We feel like the Board of Supervisors took several positive steps today," Patrick Donnelly of the Shoshone-based Amargosa Conservancy told KCET. "Limiting the county to photovoltaic panels only will help protect the county's precious groundwater resources. We also applaud the County for removing Chicago Valley from consideration for solar; it's a treasured landscape of the Amargosa watershed."

"However," Donnelly added, "we and many who traveled 200 miles to be at this meeting today strongly oppose solar development in Charleston View. 6,400 acres of photovoltaic cells is not right for our watershed or our community."

East County businesswoman Amy Noel, owner and operator of the Tecopa Hot Springs Resort, underscored local opposition to big solar in the stretch of Inyo County east of Death Valley. "I think the Supervisors missed an opportunity to challenge the way solar is done in the state of California," Noel told KCET. "We're not done yet."

For the record: an earlier version of this piece contained an incorrect acreage for the Charleston View SEDA.

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