MARCH 29, 2014 ----
Inyo County leaders will weigh in on the controversial Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment Tuesday and direct county planning staff on how to proceed with the document.
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hear a presentation from Planning Department staff on the proposed draft REGPA at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the County Administrative Center in Independence before providing input on the controversial plan.
As to the county’s general stance on renewable energy development, which has been unclear, Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio said Friday that hasn’t been decided yet. “That’s a question the Board of Supervisors is determining,” Carunchio said. “The board has not taken any pro or anti-solar stance,” and part of its job on Tuesday will be to balance the needs of private property owners, national energy needs, the will of Inyo citizens and the environment.
Other counties throughout California, meanwhile, are in the same process, facing the same public outcry. San Bernardino County placed a moratorium on renewable energy development projects until an acceptable plan for dealing with the projects is put in place.
• 2011 REGPA •
Inyo County’s REGPA saga began in 2010, when local leaders and the Planning Department realized that the Inyo General Plan did not provide guidelines or renewable energy development as the state began pushing to have 33 percent of California’s energy created through renewable sources.
“In 2010, it became apparent our General Plan did not adequately address renewables,” Planning Director Josh Hart said Thursday, adding that the original REGPA was a direct response to state and federal renewable energy planning efforts.
“Clearly, there was an interest (at the state and federal level) in developing renewable energy in the county” and the Inyo General Plan “had some references” to renewables, but was otherwise “pretty silent” on the subject.
Hart said the REGPA is designed to address a number of issues associated with renewable energy development, from land use and aesthetics to the potential financial impacts and impacts to county services.
Hart also said that, due to state and federal efforts to promote solar energy development, large, industrial-scale solar plants are not subject to the same taxes as other developments.
That poses a problem for the county, which is still obligated to provide the same health and safety services for the facility as it would for any other development. “Solar has a lot of potential for fiscal and service impacts, so we wanted to address that,” Hart said.
Because 98 percent of county land is controlled by federal agencies or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and permitting for renewable energy development is handled at the state level, the county’s ability to regulate proposed development is limited.
“It’s limited, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have any,” Hart said, explaining that state and federal agencies are required to take local plans into account when they consider any kind of development (solar included).
But for that to happen, the county needs a plan.
Throughout the public input process, many constituents have asked – since a local plan has to be considered – why the county doesn’t approve a REGPA that simply states that large, industrial-scale solar installations are not welcome in the scenic, largely undisturbed Owens Valley.
Hart said the county can’t just overrule state and federal mandates for renewable energy development.
“If we say we don’t want anything, the fear is they would think they can look anywhere” they wanted in Inyo County for solar development, Hart said. That’s how the Planning Department ended up developing a number of Renewable Energy Development Areas in the REGPA. The REDAs identify areas of the county that are believed to be suitable for development. Anything outside those areas, Hart said, is off-limits, and, hopefully, developers would have to adhere to that.
The Board of Supervisors adopted the original REGPA in 2011, but rescinded the document under threat of a lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.
The two environmental groups demanded that the county conduct a full California Environmental Quality Act evaluation of the REGPA before including it in the General Plan.
In 2012, Inyo County applied for and received a grant from the California Energy Commission to the tune of $750,000 to conduct that CEQA evaluation, and Planning staff began work on the new REGPA that is being considered by the Board of Supervisors Tuesday.
• WHAT’S CHANGED •
Hart said that, rather than starting from scratch, the Planning Department used the original REGPA as a template for the new proposal, which will go through the CEQA process after the Board of Supervisors weighs in Tuesday.
In the new plan, Hart said Planning staff reduced the size of the Owens Valley REDA, which covers land east of U.S. Highway 395 between the towns of Independence and Lone Pine.
Hart said staff also implemented a development cap in the new REGPA to ensure that any potential development happens at a manageable scale. He explained that 10 percent of Inyo County land – 1,023 square miles – is included in the various REDAs, but the county wants no more than one half of a percent of the county’s land – 51.2 square miles – used for renewable energy development. “We’re saying that 99.5 percent (of Inyo County) is being put off limits,” Hart said.
But again, the REGPA has very little authority over federal, state and LADWP-managed lands, which account for 98 percent of Inyo County’s 10,226.98 square miles.
Carunchio said the unpopular solar facility proposed by the LADWP within the Owens Valley REDA had no relation to the draft REGPA. “I think it’s really an issue of timing. Initially, three to four years ago, the board approved (the Owens Valley REDA) overlay (in the original REGPA) and the county got sued for not doing a full-blown CEQA. Basically, staff took that overlay as a beginning point for the new overlay. We’re starting the process and the dialogue. There’s a lot of feedback, and based on that, staff can make amendments” to the document. Carunchio said the level of engagement from the community is a good thing. “The document can change, we’re at the beginning, not the end.”
• QUESTIONS ANSWERED •
Throughout the public input process, many residents have said they support renewable energy development, just not large, industrial-scale plants – especially in the Owens Valley REDA, which is near the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway, and visible from Manzanar National Historic Site. Many of those residents suggested that the REGPA’s development areas should be placed over land that has already been developed, such as local communities.
“There are lots of issues with that,” Hart said. “Worst-case scenario, their whole community would be surrounded by solar and windmills” and that is not likely to go over well with most residents. The best-case scenario proposed by residents would be that solar development would be limited to small-scale, dispersed and rooftop development. “That’s not what we’re looking at,” Hart said. “We’re looking at utility- scale development. By limiting it just to the communities, to me that would be just like saying ‘no.’”
Hart said the county has “liberal” policies about rooftop solar and encourages residents to develop their own energy and participate in feed-in tariff programs offered by Southern California Edison and LADWP. But the bottom line is that a transmission corridor running through the Owens Valley can transmit 250 megawatts of energy to Southern California and eventually a development company is going to build an industrial-scale facility to take advantage of that transmission line. Hart explained that the transmission line has the capacity to transport 10 times the energy than can be developed on local rooftops.
But one of the main existing transmission lines, the Inyo-Rinaldi line, is almost at full capacity.
According to Carunchio, transmission corridors are going to be a major topic for the county in the future. “LADWP has 250 megawatts of capacity (on its transmission line) and we can expect a development or a combination of developments that will utilize that,” Carunchio said. “But in the future, for development, there needs to be transmission.”
Carunchio said that the state of Nevada has proposed two transmission corridors, one coming over Westgard Pass and one over Montgomery Pass. If built, “those would invite bigger developments,” Carunchio said. “We need to know what is the community willing to accept? Right now, it’s great that we have so many people commenting on it.”
Carunchio said that smaller-scale solar projects have been proposed in Independence and in communities like Olancha, but those kinds of projects likely won’t need the large-capacity transmission lines the proposed industrial-scale developments are looking for.
In any case, part of the county’s job moving forward with proposed developments is to evaluate how those projects will impact public services.
It’s been alleged that part of the reason the county is eager to “advertise” the REDAs to developers is to capitalize on future mitigation money as a solution to budget shortfalls.
Carunchio said the county has the option of seeking money from the developer to mitigate impacts, but that will be handled on a case-by-case basis.
• WHAT’S NEXT •
Hart said community comments on the draft REGPA have been well received, and the ball will hit the Board of Supervisor’s court Tuesday.
The board has the ability to direct Planning Department staff to amend the REGPA as it sees fit. Planning staff will incorporate any direction it gets from the board into the draft REGPA before beginning the CEQA analysis, “then there’s all kinds of opportunities for public input,” Hart said.
Per CEQA, Planning staff will create a draft Environmental Impact Report on the General Plan amendment. That draft will be subject to public review before a final EIR is presented.
“We’re not at the beginning, but we’re still in the very early stages,” Hart said. “There has been a high level of interest and we hope that will continue. This is exactly what we wanted,” because public guidance is essential to developing a plan that is appropriate for the county. “One of the main points is to guide where renewables will go,” Hart said. “There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed.”
• EYES ON INYO •
Terry Weiner, co-founder of Solar Done Right and conservation and projects coordinator for The Desert Protective Council, a group dedicated to safeguarding the unique scenic, scientific, historical, spiritual or recreational value of the nation’s deserts, said Inyo County is not alone in facing challenges presented by renewable energy development.
“Until recently, Southern California counties were not including large-scale, remote energy development projects in their General Plan processes,” Weiner said. “ … For example, Imperial and San Diego counties’ General Plans were more than 20 years old and these counties have only begun to consider the impacts of large-scale industrial energy within their planning process. I believe this applies to San Bernardino County as well.”
And while desert counties are watching to see what precedents might be set elsewhere, “it is too early to say to what extent decisions of one county impact the decisions of other counties throughout the state,” she said.
Weiner said that San Bernardino County placed a moratorium on large-scale solar and wind development until it completes its General Plan process. That decision, she feels, was made based on input from community members.
She said San Bernardino County also prohibits large-scale solar and wind projects within a mile of a National Park.
“Other Southern California counties cannot have failed to notice the huge public outcry from the Morongo Basin against industrializing the basin,” Weiner said. “Their ecotourism economy depends on the uncluttered beauty of the area. Inyo County supervisors, we hope, appreciate the fact that the Owens Valley is the exquisite rural gateway to the Eastern Sierra, which draws tourists from all over the planet.”
Weiner said that the public outrage about marring the desert landscapes of the West with solar developments is not unique to Inyo County. “This is absolutely a common concern, especially in counties where eco-tourism is an important element of the economy, especially in San Bernardino County,” Weiner said.
She explained that in Imperial County, the Farm Bureau is furious with the Imperial Irrigation District for terminating some farming leases and turning them over to large-scale solar developers and undermining the farm economy.
Another common theme communities throughout the state are coping with is that there are so many unknowns when it comes to large-scale solar projects.
“We can’t anticipate all of the impacts from these large-scale projects because we don’t have the baseline data, which is why we need to halt these developments until studies can be conducted over the next five years on the existing solar and wind projects. And by that time, California will have exceeded their 33 percent renewable energy goal,” Weiner said.
One impact that can be anticipated is on air quality. “Local residents may not realize that solar developers scrape the entire surface of the ground and the particulate pollution generated locally from large-scale solar projects is horrendous,” Weiner said. “There is a 100-acre NRG solar field on abandoned agricultural land in Borrego Springs and I have photographed the dust storms generated from that project. Large brown clouds of fine dust rise hundreds of feet in the air and move across the entire town and State Park.”
Weiner said that there are better ways to go about achieving the state’s goal of having 33 percent of its energy generated through renewable sources. “Distributed generation from solar on rooftops of all buildings, parking lots, on abandoned industrial land and adjacent to the cities where the energy is needed is the answer,” she said.