20,105 square miles is a lot of land. San Bernardino County is the largest county in the continental United States, stretching from the suburbs of Los Angeles to the barren deserts on the Nevada border, and is substantially larger than many states on the East Coast.
And as of last night, more than one million acres (~1,600 square miles) of this will be closed off to large-scale solar and wind development. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to ban “utility-oriented renewable energy” in fourteen communities and in “rural living zoning districts” throughout the county.
What the board has designated as “community-oriented renewable energy” (CORE), will be allowed. This includes rooftop or on-site solar projects, as well as “shared energy generation to be used primarily by local users”, a designation which could include community solar projects.
The primary distinction appears to be whom it serves. According to county documents, if more than 50% of a project’s output is sold “to the energy grid”, then it is not CORE and will not be allowed.
As noted in coverage by Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times, this issue has pitted rural residents who complain that their quality of life is being eroded not only against large solar companies including First Solar, but also against unions whose members are benefitting from employment in these projects.
Fight over the desert
This is not the first time that large-scale solar projects have run into conflicts in the California desert, despite this area being the home of the first large-scale solar projects in the United States, the Solar Energy Generating Systems (SEGS).
Many large concentrating solar power (CSP) and solar PV plants which were planned for public lands in the California desert have been effectively blocked by conservationists and Native American tribes, often using the strictness of the California Environmental Quality Act to their favor.
And as the use of public land provided more avenues to challenge these projects, many solar developers often shifted to private land, including former agricultural lands. However, the irony of San Bernardino County’s ban is that is applies to private land, and County staff have even proposed that development be shifted back to public land, “apart from existing unincorporated communities”.
This fight is not limited to California. Many communities in New England have seen fierce battles over renewable energy siting, with conservationist non-profits often joining with locals who believe that they should be able to use electricity generated elsewhere but not have to see its production, which has led to some particularly odd decisions from local officials.
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PV panels belong on the rooftops of homes and businesses of communities. Destruction of wildlife habitat is not necessary.
This is a ridiculous ban given CA wanting to eliminate all fossil fuel as well as nuclear power generation, where does SB County think the renewable energy is going to come from if they don’t build these projects in the vast desert wasteland that provides no other redeeming qualities? Who would want wind turbines in their backyard, environmentalists complain about them anyway because they supposedly kill birds? The environmentalists always have issues, but they never have any alternative solutions, they need to be proactive instead of reactive….
We have less than 1% energy from renewables after 40 years of doing it…CA is a laugh.
Wrong. Renewable energy provided 18% of U.S. electricity in 2018. Solar and wind were half of that.
I would advise that you check to make sure that you are using up-to-date numbers before commenting.
A problem many have is thinking that the desert is a wasteland. On the contrary, 28% of the state of California is desert yet the desert nurtures 38% of the state’s native plants. How did this diversity come about? The state is a hotspot for biodiversity on the planet because of its wrinkled topography that provides mountains and basins with unique soils, exposures, and long evolutionary histories. The desert land is not a billiard table. The places where solar companies desire to build is flat and from 1-3% slope. They want the basins. Unfortunately, the basins are complex soils with sand and dust, which when scraped of vegetation causes immense dust storms that make communities uninhabitable. Much of the area under consideration for solar is vegetated. The plants are host to dense root systems connected by fungi, bacteria, and algae that hold the soil together. If the plants are removed by bulldozers or vehicles the ground is no longer stabilized and moves in the wind. In addition, the dense life underground is currently and has been sequestering carbon for thousands of years. After destruction, the vegetation community can take from hundreds to thousands of years to recover its complex systems. Utility Solar is at a scale that causes unbreathable air and releases years of stored carbon. Those who believe the desert always blows in the wind are mistaken and need to stand in the vegetated areas to see the difference between stabilized and unstabilized soils. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that roof-top solar can meet 74% of California’s needs. We are working to make that happen.
I think it is more important to utilize the desert lands for beneficial purposes than leaving them untapped.
Re: Scott Swan’s comments.
One does not see photovoltaic panels covering the California Capitol building and probably not upon most of the state legislators’ homes.
Per capita, San Bernardino County has already produced far in excess of its share of renewable energy. If California wants 100% renewable energy by 2045, California needs to invest in distribution/rooftop solar, not in foreign corporations that devastate that county’s pristine desert with mega-sized facilities that the corporations flip.
Swan’s “vast desert wasteland” comment reveals a lack of understanding and appreciation of the Mojave Desert. It is the home of thousands of people who are trying to take care of it and its wildlife despite the political bully pressures from Washington and Sacramento to desecrate it.
Many of that county’s current and proposed projects are sited in Sand Transport Paths which are definitely the wrong placement. They make photovoltaic ‘Dirty Solar Energy’ in vastly increasing PM10 dust during frequent wind events. This is a major health issue which places the sites’ power production in violation of California’s Proposition 65. This is a new issue that may impact the siting of utility-scale facilities in the future.
The San Bernardino County ban only affects the county controlled land, not the massive federal and state lands. The DRECP is setting aside approximately 400-thousand acres for renewable energy development. There is still plenty of land available.
I understand the reason behind the county decision. I’m just wondering if these officials have done their math. There are far more residents in nearby Los Angeles than the county. They should have had the policy to require clean energy plants output to local communities first, for free or at half of the current rate, then the extra energy can be sold to densely populated coastal area.
I am 100% for solar but not for solar farms… My objection is because solar belongs on roofs as stated above and we have enough parking lots that we should be able the cover them all with panels to power entire cities!
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