Developers will no longer be allowed to develop large renewable energy projects in certain areas of the San Bernardino County desert.
After a five-hour public hearing Tuesday, Feb. 28, the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to prohibit utility-oriented renewable energy development in rural zones and the unincorporated 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.
About five dozen people addressed the supervisors, including residents supportive of the ban, union members who oppose the ban because they want the construction jobs generated by the (mostly solar) projects, and developers and utilities looking to add alternative energy to the power grid.
“There are tens of thousands of acres for these projects to go where they don’t impact any areas within the desert or communities,” said 1st District Supervisor Robert Lovingood, adding that the county is already the largest producer of thermal electric energy in the state. “In this case, there are alternatives that need to be looked at that don’t disturb, or impact, or create any loss of jobs.”
The policy, commonly referred to as Policy 4.10, is part of the county’s Renewable Energy and Conservation Element in the General Plan. The element was approved in August 2017, but the supervisors sent the policy back to planning.
In May, the Planning Commission rejected a revision that would have required projects to be approved on a case-by-case basis, rather than a flat out prohibition, in favor of the original policy.
Still, commissioners were concerned that the policy was too restrictive. So on Tuesday the supervisors agreed to include language that allows developers to apply for a General Plan amendment, or a boundary change, if they have a site that meets the county’s criteria but is within the prohibited zones. Any exception, however, would require supervisor approval.
Some developers and utility company representatives found the policy too restrictive, saying it limits development to areas that are already disturbed from uses such as agriculture and mining and the remote areas of Amboy, El Mirage, Hinkley, Kramer Junction and Trona.
Eight projects currently are being reviewed by the county. More than 20 have been approved in the past decade.
Justin Lanford, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 477, has worked on many of the solar projects previously approved in the county. He opposes a ban on solar projects.
“All of (the solar projects) that I’ve worked on have followed the rules very strictly in regards to environmental impacts,” Lanford said. “Also, there’s a lot of jobs that are created by these projects. Yeah, they’re temporary jobs, but that’s what we make our livelihood off of.”
But some residents say the prohibition will protect communities from potential health hazards caused by blowing dust, which increases when pristine desert land is disturbed by construction. They also cited the protection of scenic views, carbon sequestration from desert vegetation, and preservation of habitat and wildlife as reasons to prohibit large solar development.
“You’ve been told by many, including solar developers, labor (and) the construction business that they are stakeholders in our community. They are not stakeholders in our community,” said Brian Hammer, who owns property adjacent to a proposed solar project in Lucerne Valley. “They have no enduring interest in the long term health of our community. They will use us and leave us with the environmental mess and community nightmare that will last for decades.”
Chairman Curt Hagman voted against the policy, saying the county’s definition of utility-scale development could prevent future projects that use advanced technology to generate energy on fewer acres.
Under the new rules a project is considered to be utility-oriented if more than 50 percent of the energy generated is for use outside the local area and and is sent to the energy grid. This does not include community-oriented renewable energy, such as rooftop and parking lot solar panels.
In addition to Policy 4.10, the supervisors approved a rule to allow existing energy generation sites in prohibited areas to continue operating and make technology upgrades. They also approved a policy to encourage developers to work with state and federal agencies to build on public land, which makes up most county property.
It’s lights out on big solar in San Bernardino County desert, by Sandra Emerson, San Bernardino Sun, February 28, 2019.