A controversial policy regulating renewable energy development in unincorporated San Bernardino County is headed back to the Board of Supervisors, about a year and a half after it was sent back to planning.
The policy, which will be considered during a special meeting Thursday, Feb. 28, prohibits utility-oriented renewable energy projects in rural living and several unincorporated communities because of their potential negative impacts on air quality and the environment.
Developers have found the policy too restrictive as it limits where they can build these developments, mainly solar, which have been encouraged by the state’s environmental laws to reduce greenhouse gases. Union members, too, support the projects for the construction jobs they create.
Many desert residents, however, have come out against these projects, citing increases in sand blowing through their communities during and after construction; disruption of scenic views and wildlife corridors; as well as a reduction in carbon sequestration from the loss of desert vegetation, among other concerns.
“I think there’s pretty good support for this and they might even wish it could be stronger,” said Terri Rahhal, director of the county’s land use services department. “On the development side, they don’t want any restrictions, so I think they’re not happy with it. But, it’s the best compromise we could come up with over the period of two or three years now.”
The policy is part of the broader Renewable Energy and Conservation Element in the county’s General Plan.
In August 2017, the supervisors approved the element after a five-hour standing-room-only public hearing. They heard from residents, environmentalists, developers and unions before voting to send the policy back to the Planning Commission for further review.
In May, the Planning Commission rejected a revised policy that proposed a project-by-project approach, rather than a flat-out prohibition, in favor of the original policy.
The item was placed on the agenda for Nov. 6, Election Day, but was postponed.
Prohibition in the desert
A state mandate that electric utilities obtain a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy sources led to an influx of applications from developers looking to build solar farms and facilities on unincorporated county land in the desert.
The main policy under consideration by the supervisors, which is commonly referred to as Policy 4.10, is meant to minimize the impact on desert residents by prohibiting utility-oriented renewable energy developments where they live. This includes zones designated as rural living and the communities of Bloomington, Muscoy, Bear Valley, Crest Forest, Hilltop, Lake Arrowhead, Lytle Creek, Oak Glen, Homestead Valley, Joshua Tree, Lucerne Valley, Morongo Valley, Oak Hills and Phelan/Phelan Hills.
Developers could still build on land previously used for mining or agriculture and the more remote desert areas of Amboy, El Mirage, Hinkley, Kramer Junction and Trona. They are also being encouraged to work with state and federal agencies to build on their public land in the desert.
If approved, the policy would fit under the element chapter that outlines policies for protecting residents from blowing dust and sand, as well as scenic and cultural resources; wildlife and water quality.
In addition to Policy 4.10, the supervisors will consider a policy that would allow renewable energy projects already operating in the prohibited zones to make improvements and technology upgrades. They will also consider a policy the emphasizes cooperation with state and federal agencies to build these projects on public land.
An issue with dust control
Residents give several reasons why these projects should not be allowed, but an increase in sand and dust resulting from the removal of desert vegetation is a big one.
Mona Doles describes her experience living across the street from the 22-acre solar farm on Mountain View Road in Newberry Springs as “pure hell.”
After the farm was built in 2011, Doles said sand dunes as high as 10 feet started forming on her property. She said the sand gets into her home and keeps her trapped inside on windy days. She’s also concerned about its effect on her health.
“I don’t know how many wheelbarrows full my son has hauled and dumped out in different locations just to keep the house from getting buried,” said Doles, 63, who purchased the property with her late-husband in 2005.
Canada-based Stace Electrical BOP Solutions, which purchased the farm in 2017, has done some clean up on her property, Doles said the sand keeps blowing and is now suing for monetary damages, a tractor to help remove the sand and a home air-filtration system.
“I’m going to do whatever it takes,” Doles said. “I know I’ve been told I’m irritating, but I do what I need to do to take care of myself and my family.”
Rahhal said the company is working with county code enforcement to make improvements, and the solar farm has served as a “lessons learned” situation.
Since the county saw its first renewable energy developments go in, the review procedures have gotten more detailed and restrictive, Rahhal said. They also require a dust management plan during construction and operation, she said.
“So we’ve come light years, I would say, in the way we review the projects in the first place,” Rahhal said.
The future of solar in the desert
It’s hard to say for sure what the future holds for solar plants in the desert.
While the policy, if approved, would prohibit future renewable energy projects in these areas, it may not necessarily stop those already in the planning process.
As of February, there were several active projects in various stages of the planning process, including a 3,500-acre solar farm in Daggett as well as a 483-acre and a 664-acre solar project proposed in Lucerne Valley currently undergoing environmental review, according to the county’s website.
Brian Hammer, whose property is about 30 feet away from the proposed 483-acre Ord Mountain Solar project in Lucerne Valley, has been among a group of residents fighting to keep these developments away from their homes.
“We’re playing whack-a-mole with the projects that are already out there,” Hammer said. “Our hope is that 4.10 will shut the door and allow us to focus on fighting the ones that are there – not because we don’t like solar. There isn’t a person that I’ve met in the group over the years that isn’t pro-solar, but in the right spot.”
The public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 28 at the county government center, 385 N. Arrowhead Ave., in San Bernardino.
San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to consider guidelines for renewable energy development in the desert, by Sandra Emerson, San Bernardino Sun, February 22, 2019.