Top Los Angeles Department of Water and Power officials made a trip to the Owens Valley this week, just days after the Inyo County Board of Supervisors reached out to the utility for an update on the status of its controversial solar project.
But Assistant Director of Power System Planning and Development Michael Webster and Yamen Nanne, an engineer on the solar project, weren’t here to meet with county officials. Rather, they were on a two-day public relations junket filled with meetings with local chambers of commerce, tribes, school officials and National Park Service representatives.
The reason for the meetings, according to an email from L.A. officials to local representatives, was to hear concerns and share information.
Over the course of Thursday and Friday, Webster and Nanne met with several individuals from Lone Pine to Bishop to provide details about the status of LADWP’s proposed Southern Owens Valley Solar ranch project – a 1,200-acre, 200 megawatt undertaking between Independence and Lone Pine and east of Manzanar National Historic Site.
With more unknowns circulating about the project than certainties and a utility reticent to share details outside of those outlined in the project’s Draft Environmental Impact Report, Webster and Nanne’s visit was a welcome turn of events.
There is local support for the project from residents and some business owners eager to reap economic benefits while LADWP has a temporary workforce of up to 350 living and recreating in Southern Inyo. LADWP has also promised to create 10 permanent, local positions – contingent upon the county entering into a Memorandum of Understanding that prevents the county from challenging the project.
Nevertheless, the project is widely unpopular among environmental groups, residents and visitors and the Japanese American community in Southern California who take issue with the project’s potential impacts on plants, birds, cultural and archeological resources; a valuable viewshed from U.S. 395 and nearby mountain ranges; and the perception that Inyo County is fair game to developers.
One of Webster and Nanne’s first stops was Manzanar National Historic Site, where they met with Acting Superintendent Colin Smith.
According to Smith, while the LADWP official’s presentation included a lot of information on the project he was already aware of, new to the conversation were specific details regarding the size and height of solar ranch structures – of particular interest to Smith and the National Park Service given their location in line of sight with Manzanar.
The 1-2 million solar photovoltaic panels proposed for placement between U.S. 395 and the base of the Inyo Mountains will be “no more than 15 feet high, some lower than that,” Smith said. Other structures, such as transformers, will stand about 25 feet tall.
“It gave us a better idea of what we would see from here,” Smith said, “which is our main concern – the visual impact here.”
And? “You’ll see it – there’s no way around that,” Smith said. “Our concerns basically remain the same.”
It is the belief of the NPS, Manzanar Committee and their supporters that the barren desert surrounding Manzanar is a “major component” to the cultural experience – giving visitors a first-hand feeling of the isolation known by the internees of the World War II detention camp. “We think that having that solar project there (across the highway) will change that,” Smith said.
And while the NPS’ stance remains in opposition to the project, Smith said the meeting with LADWP was positive.
“It was a good back-and-forth and they were very open to what we had to say and very forthcoming with information … I think our concerns were heard – I’m not sure it would change the course of the project – but I think they honestly listened to what we had to say,” Smith said.
Ultimately, “the National Park Service is interested in protecting the cultural landscape here. We would be happy if they could find another location.”
CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE
Both the Bishop and Lone Pine chambers of commerce were invited to meet with Webster and Nanne.
In Lone Pine, some chamber of commerce members were upset that Friday’s 10 a.m. meeting was restricted to only Executive Director Kathleen New and a few board members.
New explained that an open, public meeting is simply not what Webster asked for. His email requested a personal meeting for the opportunity to share information about the solar project – and that’s what she gave in good faith.
New said she didn’t feel like LADWP was trying to curry favor with the chamber, and she merely saw the meeting as a chance “to get information and let people know what’s going on.”
According to New, there is both support and opposition to the project in the community and among the chamber membership. She said Thursday she had no intention of going into the meeting to speak to one position or another – or to take a position on the project for the chamber of commerce.
“That’s up to the board and the membership,” New said.
Tawni Thomson, executive director of the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce, said the same thing Thursday: any position on the solar ranch project from the chamber would only come as a result of a vote of the board.
However, she wasn’t too keen on the idea of holding any kind of “closed door” meeting with LADWP officials, and sent out an email Thursday afternoon to chamber board members inviting them to her 2 p.m. meeting with Webster and Nanne.
Creekside Inn General Manager Sean Nolan and New Cali Landscapes owner Todd Lembke attended.
In the meeting, Webster and Nanne discussed some of the ideas Inyo residents have suggested as alternatives to the solar ranch project, including dispersed, rooftop solar in the Los Angeles area that wouldn’t impact open spaces, and construction of solar panels over the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which would provide renewable energy while preventing aqueduct evaporation.
Webster said that the LADWP encourages rooftop solar in its communities, and provides a number of incentives for residents who take on those projects. However, the LADWP cannot require residents to build solar panels on rooftops.
A recent study released by the UCLA Luskin Center suggests that there are enough rooftops in Los Angeles county to meet all energy needs in the Los Angeles area. Nanne said the study has had a positive impact, with many in L.A. County looking into the possibility of building solar panels, but, he said the numbers in the report may be a bit misleading. He explained that many homes and businesses in L.A. are not suitable for solar panels due to shading caused by trees. He also said that the report did not take into account the fact many buildings may not have the structural requirements for rooftop solar.
He also explained that, in Inyo County, residents who consider solar can generally build panels at ground level on their property, while in Los Angeles, most homeowners don’t have that kind of space, so rooftops are often the only space available.
Webster added that stability is a huge concern when it comes to solar energy generation. With large-scale industrial solar generating plants, the department can ramp production up or down as energy use fluctuates to prevent a system overload. With dispersed rooftop solar, the department would be working with thousands of homeowners and wouldn’t have the same kind of control over production.
Nanne also said that solar panels on the aqueduct is a great idea in theory, but the technology has not reached a point where it is appropriate for industrial-scale development.
He said that small projects have been built over canals in India, but those projects are designed to power individual homes, businesses or farms.
To build an industrial-scale solar project over the aqueduct would mean miles of panels. Nanne explained that the proposed solar ranch will include a $50 million substation that transfers power from the generating facility to transmission lines. Transporting the solar energy from one end of the aqueduct to the other would be too inefficient to make the project viable.
Lembke asked if the department had considered any other areas for the solar ranch that might be more agreeable to residents.
Webster said the LADWP looked into two different sites for the solar ranch before deciding on the Manzanar Reward Road location. At both locations, the department encountered cultural sites. No such site has been identified at the current proposed location, he said. And if a cultural site is identified there, Webster said the solar plant can be built around it.
“If there’s a better site, we’re not aware of it,” Webster said.
OFFICE OF EDUCATION
Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer also met with Webster and Nanne Thursday.
“There were two things they felt we might be interested in with this Southern Inyo solar ranch and they’re the two things I was most interested in: workforce opportunities and efficiencies,” McAteer said.
Webster and Nanne wanted to open discussions about having the Superintendent of Schools’ Office partner with the LADWP on training courses for potential solar ranch employees. McAteer said he is on board with that idea, and the only thing he would want to change is the number of local residents who will be hired at the solar ranch. “They have 10 dedicated positions in the training program, and I was pushing towards more people and a kind of vocational ed program,” McAteer said. “But he said the most we can get are 10 posts for Inyo residents because they have to work through the union in L.A., and the union wants people from L.A. I felt that that’s not too many people (from Inyo).”
McAteer did say that there may be more large-scale solar projects in Inyo County down the line, so a vocational education program would likely be a welcome addition to current curriculum.
McAteer also said that he will be meeting with another set of LADWP representatives in the near future for an efficiency audit on local schools that get their power from the LADWP.
“Someone will contact us on more efficient use of electricity and they can help us get bulk purchasing for lights, double-pane windows and other things,” McAteer said.
Webster and Nanne also had appointments with representatives of the Lone Pine and Independence tribes Friday afternoon.
The Big Pine Paiute Tribe did not get an invitation to a meeting, but Sally Manning, the tribe’s environmental director, said that representatives from Big Pine were hoping to sit in on the meeting in Lone Pine.
More information on their visit and presentation will be published next week.