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.