Local leaders finally got some long-awaited answers about the proposed, widely unpopular Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch.
Representatives from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power met with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to give local officials and concerned residents information on the LADWP project.
LADWP Assistant Director of Power System Planning and Development Michael Webster and Yamen Nanne, an engineer on the solar project, explained why the department feels it needs a 200 megawatt, 1,200-acre solar station in the Owens Valley.
According to Webster, the department needs to get away from ocean water cooling systems, eliminate coal energy production and meet a state mandate of producing one- third of its energy through renewable sources by 2020.
While achieving that goal, LADWP is tasked with maintaining a reliable energy program, enforcing environmental policies and keeping rates competitive, Webster said. “We have to balance all these spinning plates.”
To eliminate coal energy production, the LADWP is in the process of moving towards solar, geothermal and wind-energy power plants. One stop on that road is utilizing 250 megawatts of transmission capacity available on the Inyo-Rinaldi Transmission Corridor that runs through the Owens Valley to Southern California.
Thus, the department announced its solar ranch project last August – much to the surprise of those who read and/or weighed in LADWP’s Notice of Preparation that said the department would be preparing an Environmental Impact Report concerning two proposed project sites near Lone Pine.
Inyo County residents, environmental groups and members of the Japanese American community both in the Eastern Sierra and in Southern California almost immediately went on record opposing the project. Among the concerns that have been expressed are visual and cultural impacts to Manzanar National Historic site and the untouched Owens Valley floor; irreversible impacts to soil, vegetation and wildlife; cultural impacts to historic Native American sites; and economic impacts resulting from the industrialization of the Owens Valley and a tarnished Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway.
Webster said the California Environmental Quality Act process for the solar ranch “has been very, very complicated” with 200 to 300 comments submitted. He said the department is currently working to evaluate and respond to each comment. The Final Environmental Impact Report on the project is expected to be 1,200 pages or more.
Rather than building a huge, industrial-scale eyesore across the highway from a National Historic Site – one whose visitor experience is dependent on sharing the feeling of desolation and isolation felt by its former inhabitants – solar ranch opponents have pointed out that dispersed, roof-top solar in Southern California could meet the department’s needs. That option could save the rate-payers money, because the energy won’t be transported 300-plus miles to the south, and would save the Inyo County landscape from development.
Webster said there are several issues with that idea. He explained that cloud cover and shading means that the energy produced by solar panels tends to fluctuate. At facilities like the proposed solar ranch, the department can regulate how much power is being pumped into the system at a central location, but with dispersed solar, it’s harder to control power generation at dozens or hundreds of different locations.
Webster also said that the L.A. basin has to contend with a marine layer of clouds that limits solar production. “Cloud covers have a significant impact on solar,” Webster said, explaining that the department needs “geographic diversity” in its solar infrastructure to ensure that a cloudy day doesn’t eliminate solar production completely.
Webster said the department is looking at a solar development on Owens Lake, but it is not feasible to have that project built by the 2020 deadline set by the state, due to soil concerns. He explained that most of the lakebed is too soft to build on, but LADWP does have remedies in the works and hopes to test a small project on the lake in the near future, barring any complications obtaining a lease from the State Lands Commission, which owns the lakebed.
Fourth District Supervisor Mark Tillemans said “there’s not a huge rush” to have the solar ranch developed, as the deadline for LADWP’s renewable goal is six years away. He suggested that the department hold off on the solar ranch until the test on the lake is complete, or at least identify a site for the project on “already disturbed land.” Webster said that LADWP needs to get the ball rolling on a project this year to meet the state deadlines.
Fifth District Supervisor Matt Kingsley suggested that LADWP maintain an ongoing dialogue with the board and local residents, to ensure everyone is informed about what is happening with the project. “I feel a little left alone by your department,” Kingsley said. “We’ve gotten a lot of input here that you should be engaged in. I don’t know how committed you are to the project. Some engagement would help me.”
Read more about Tuesday’s meeting with the LADWP, including how community members responded to the presentation, in Saturday’s edition of The Inyo Register.