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Inyo County Planners Suggest Strict Limits to Big Solar

The Chicago Valley, in the background, might be spared solar development | Photo: Don Barrett/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The agency responsible for planning development in one of California's most sparsely populated counties just threw a curveball that may prove a game-changer for desert solar energy.

In a unanimous 5-0 vote Wednesday in Independence, the Inyo County Planning Commission recommended that new solar facilities in the county be limited to no more than 20 megawatts in size -- about one-twentieth the size of the well-known 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System just across the line in San Bernardino County.

The Commission also recommended reducing the size of several "Solar Energy Development Areas," or SEDAs, and entirely eliminated two controversial ones in the Amargosa River basin in the eastern part of the county near Death Valley.

The recommendations were part of the Planning Commission's review of the county's proposed Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment, a process initiated at the behest of, and with funding from, the California Energy Commission. The Commission's recommendation now goes before the county's Board of Supervisors, which is expected to vote on the General Plan Amendment at its March 24 meeting.

The two SEDAs the Planning Commission recommended dropping are the Chicago Valley SEDA, east of the town of Shoshone, and the expansive Charleston View SEDA just south of Pahrump, Nevada. Both SEDAs had been opposed by many environmental protection groups and local residents.

The Commission recommended reducing the size of SEDAs in Pearsonville and Rose Valley, and at Owens Lake.

One still-lingering solar project proposed for Inyo County, BrightSource Energy's suspended Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System, would likely be doomed if the Inyo Supervisors approve the recommendation of their Planning Commission. Not only was Hidden Hills' proposed site smack dab in the middle of the Charleston View SEDA, but its planned capacity of 500 megawatts would be 25 times larger than the megawattage limit proposed by Inyo's Planning Commission.

In fact, concentrating solar thermal projects like Hidden Hills might not be feasible anywhere in Inyo if the Supervisors adopt the recommendations. It's certainly possible to build concentrating solar plants that would come in under the 20-megawatt limit: eSolar's Sierra Sun Tower plant, on about 20 acres of land in Lancaster, generates five megawatts, for example.

But at smaller sizes like those recommended by Inyo's planners, photovoltaic panels like those found on urban roofs are just far more cost-effective to install and maintain, and a 20-megawatt cap may well force solar thermal developers elsewhere.

As a result, it's likely that Inyo's Supervisors are in for a bit of arm-twisting over the next three weeks from solar industry advocates. And if the Supervisors accept the Planning Commission's recommendations, that will likely throw a monkey wrench into the planning process for the seven-county, 22-million-acre Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which includes a Development Focus Area in Charleston View that might have to be scrapped if Inyo's General Plan Amendment discourages development there.

Though approval of the Commission's recommendations by the Board of Supervisors isn't a sure thing, locals in the eastern Inyo region are jubilant. "Visitors come to Southern Inyo County to enjoy our scenic vistas, to soak in our healing waters, and to relax in a peaceful setting," said Tecopa businesswoman Nancy Good. "We oppose industrial-scale solar development in Charleston View and Chicago Valley because it will negatively affect tourism in our area, which is the backbone of our local economy."

"We encourage the Board of Supervisors to follow through on the leadership shown by the Planning Commission," said Patrick Donnelly, executive director of the Shoshone-based Amargosa Conservancy. "Limiting facility size to 20 megawatts and removing sensitive areas like Charleston View and Chicago Valley from consideration reflects a courageous departure from past planning efforts in the desert."

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