San Bernardino County rejects 287 MW Soda Mountain Solar project

Five years ago, there were a number of enormous solar PV and concentrating solar power (CSP) projects planned for public land in the California desert near the border with Nevada, which totaled multiple gigawatts of capacity.

Over the next few years, these projects collapsed one by one, with few making it to the construction phase. These projects were defeated largely by the failure of CSP to compete with PV on price, but also by conservationists versed in the details of strict California environmental law.

Many in the industry learned the lesson that these high-irradiation public lands were not the easiest places to build solar projects of any technology, and settled for more modestly sized PV projects on private land including former agricultural lands in the Central Valley, Imperial Valley and other regions.

As such, the Soda Mountain Solar project planned for desert land near the highway town of Baker was one of the last huge solar projects, and may have met its final and fatal obstacle. On Tuesday, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors declined to authorize an environmental permit for the 287 MW PV project in a 3-2 vote, with Vice-Chair Robert Lovingood describing it as the “wrong project in the wrong location”.

This is not the first set-back for the project, which Menlo Park-based Regenerate Power bought from Bechtel after a power contract with Los Angeles’ municipal utility fell through in June 2015.

The boundary of the 2,059-acre project site reaches half a mile from the border of the Mojave National Preserve, and conservationists have expressed concern over habitat for bighorn sheep, foxes, owls and migratory birds. Despite this, the U.S. Department of the Interior had approved the project, which is located on public land administered by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Conservationists had protested BLM approval, and celebrated the decision by San Bernardino County. “Today, under the leadership of Supervisor Robert Lovingood, San Bernardino County Supervisors did what the Interior Department would not; they denied the nation’s worst renewable energy proposal,” declared David Lamfrom with the National Parks Conservation Alliance in a press statement.

Regenerative Power has pledged to push forward with the project, and was quoted in Los Angeles Times as saying that rejection of the project was the result of “fear and misunderstanding”.

However, it is unclear just how Regenerative Power will do this.

It is also unlikely that such projects will come forward in the future. The Department of the Interior has attempted to minimize conflicts between solar developers and conservationists by creating 17 Solar Energy Zones on public lands in less-contested areas, and is unlikely to approve new projects not located in these zones.