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Solar project raises concerns for Inyo

March 19, 2012

While discussing the Hidden Hills Solar Project proposed for a remote area in southeast Inyo County, local leaders said they are concerned that the massive development may strain local resources. Image courtesy Inyo County

To some, placing a 3,200-acre, 500-megawatt solar plant in the remote reaches of southeast Inyo County seems like a good idea. To others, the proposal raises concerns about providing security, emergency response and other county services in the isolated region.
County leaders met on Tuesday with representatives of BrightSource Energy, proponent of the solar plant project. During that discussion, BrightSource laid out its conceptual plans for the Hidden Hills Solar Energy Generating System and the Board of Supervisors and county staff put some of its concerns on the table.
The proposed solar plant will be near Charleston View, adjacent to the Nevada border. It will consist of two 750-foot CSP “Power Towers” and 85,000 heliostats per tower.
The heliostats, basically mirrors, will reflect sunlight to the two towers, which will boil water to create steam and pressure that will turn a turbine, creating electricity.
Joseph Desmond, senior vice president of Government Affairs and Communications for BrightSource, said that 1,000 or more workers will be brought on over the projected 24-year life of the project. After construction, the plant will need between 100 and 200 employees to operate the site.
Desmond said that will translate to more than $390 million in wages for employees.
He also said project proponents estimate that BrightSource will spend about $8 million paying Inyo County residents to work on the project and spend approximately $9.5 million on local construction, goods and services.
The Board of Supervisors pointed out that, despite the number of people hired, most will live and work in Nevada, rather than any of Inyo’s population centers, which are too far from the remote site to commute.
As for the $9.5 million projected for goods and services, the board pointed out that there are no stores, hotels or other businesses in the project area, and employees will likely sleep and spend their money in nearby Nevada communities.
Desmond also said the county would see an additional $265 million in state and local taxes.
Second District Supervisor Susan Cash said those numbers are misleading.
While the project may very well generate $265 million in state and local taxes, the local revenue will not all go to Inyo County, Much of it, Cash said, will be divided between Inyo and several special tax districts.
Inyo will see about 29 percent of that tax money, equal to about $1.1 million.
In addition to questioning the benefit BrightSource says its project will bring to Inyo County, local leaders and officials had some concerns.
A number of county department heads, including the sheriff, Health and Human Services director, water director and county counsel, mentioned specific concerns that have been identified.
“There are going to be socioeconomic impacts,” County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio said. “Development of this scale is not something we see every day in Inyo County.”
County Counsel Randy Keller said for the project to move forward, Inyo County will be required to amend its General Plan and Zoning codes and abandon some public, dirt roads that are on the private property where BrightSource hopes to build the solar facility.
Water Director Bob Harrington said that there have been great concerns about how the solar plant’s use of water will affect water tables and nearby communities. He said once construction begins, his department will likely spend county funds to monitor wells at the site to ensure water draw-down does not negatively impact Inyo’s residents or wildlife.
County Tax Assessor Tom Lanshaw said the county will be responsible for assessing the facility once it is completed, and will likely require a contractor who has some experience and expertise with solar facilities.
Sheriff Bill Lutze said public safety may be an issue at the site, as BrightSource has not developed a security plan, and theft of construction materials are on the rise.
BrightSource representatives said they will develop a security plan that will alleviate some of the sheriff’s concerns.
Health and Human Services Director Jean Turner said that her department, in order to handle the influx of workers in the area, may have to hire at least one new employee for Southeast Inyo.
The Hidden Hills solar plant requires approval from the California Energy Commission, which will place certain mandates on the company to limit impacts to Inyo County.
Desmond said he hopes the county and BrightSource can work together to alleviate county concerns before the CEC makes a decision on the project.
If approved by the Energy Commission, construction is expected to be completed by the fourth quarter of 2014 or the first quarter of 2015. Commercial operation of the first solar plant would be in the first quarter of 2015, with the second solar plant operating in the second quarter of 2015.
For more information on the Hidden Hills Solar Electric Generating System Project, visit http://www.energy.ca.gov/sitingcases/hiddenhills/.

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