Given the furor that erupted at the Feb. 26 Inyo County Planning Commission meeting over the County’s proposed Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA), those unfamiliar with the REGPA might wonder what, exactly, it is.
One answer to that question can be found by looking back to the first REGPA developed by the County, which was adopted and rescinded in 2011. The intent of that General Plan Amendment was, as The Sheet reported in Aug. 2011, to narrow down the 90 percent of Inyo County geography open to renewable energy development under the current General Plan into 5-10 percent.
The County was responding to a growing interest of renewable energy developers in Inyo County. That interest grew primarily due to the State of California’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard, which requires “investor-owned utilities, electric service providers, and community choice aggregators to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources to 33 percent of total procurement by 2020.”
The first REGPA created 15 overlay maps designating areas for potential development, based upon areas with known interest in renewable wind and solar energy development, proximity to transmission and electrical conveyance facilities, and appropriate terrain.
At the time, Inyo County Planning Director Joshua Hart also said that the overlay areas took into account viewshed requirements, sensitive species, and designated Areas of Environmental Concern (ACES).
However, the REGPA was rescinded shortly after adoption because of a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) alleging that the County hadn’t done its due diligence in analyzing potential environmental impacts of the REGPA on County lands.
The fear of the plaintiffs was that by designating these overlay areas, the County was encouraging development that could still have a detrimental impact to native populations like the Mojave Ground Squirrel, as well as cultural resources adjacent to Tribal lands. Sierra Club and the CBD argued that the County should have prepared an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
This time around, the County has every intention of preparing an Environmental Impact Report for the REGPA, according to Inyo County Senior Planner Cathreen Richards.
The new, 2013 REGPA identifies 14 preferred Renewable Energy Development Areas (REDAs) that encompass about 10 percent of the County, Richards said. The REGPA also offers two alternatives to the preferred plan, one more and one less intensive.
One new addition to the REGPA is a cap on megawatts per REDA. These caps were based upon impacts to biological, cultural and historical resources, Richards said, as well as on existing transmission availability. With the caps, she said, “You’re looking at less than one percent of the total area in Inyo County being identified as appropriate for development.”
Depending on variables such as transmission and suitability for development, megawatts can also be transferred between locations within a REDA. “We did this because the REDAs are big areas, but we know that not all of it is going to be developable,” said Richards.
With megawatt transfers from one location to another, the highest total potential for renewable energy development at a single location within a REDA would be 1,500 megawatts in Charleston View. Without any megawatt transfer, Charleston View could provide a location for 750 megawatts of solar energy development. Other areas, such as Laws and Chicago Valley, have a much lower cap (40 and 50 megawatts of solar energy respectively).
Challenging to deduce from these numbers is how big a solar project might be at a particular site. “You could have 20 small projects, as long as they don’t exceed the maximum megawatt cap,” said Richards.
Richards stressed that the REGPA is not, as some opponents have characterized it, an open invitation to development. “Developers still have to go through an application and environmental review process,” she said, which could also potentially rule out locations within REDAs. “This is not an invitation,” she said. “It’s a reaction to what’s probably going to happen. It’s better to have a policy in place when developers approach the County.”
She also noted that the REGPA is far from finalized. “Everything we have done to date is still very much in draft [stage],” she said. That said, “I think this [REGPA] is more thorough,” she added.
Nevertheless, local residents and organizations remain deeply concerned that the REGPA will open the door to industrial solar and wind development, destroying long-cherished viewsheds across the County, and with them, the tourist-based economy.
A letter posted at http://www.deepestvalley.com by the Owens Valley Committee alleges “To identify potentially appropriate sites, the Planning Department used numerous criteria for ‘inclusion’ of land in REDAs, and a smaller number of criteria for ‘exclusion’ of land that might otherwise be included. At least five of the exclusion criteria (‘cultural and historical resources’, ‘scenic resources’, ‘Manzanar historic landscape viewshed’, ‘tie in with economy that is based on non-industrial landscape’, ‘sensitive species areas’) require that the land in the Owens Valley REDA be excluded. Not only was this area not excluded in the preferred alternative, it was not excluded in any of the three alternatives.”
A letter from the Independence Civic Club states, “Inyo’s citizens seem to support distributed solar and small feed-in tariff plants sited on disturbed lands. Yet the REDAs outlined in the backup material for the Planning Commission meeting of February 26, 2014 include areas of spectacular natural beauty such as Deep Springs, Centennial Flat and the Southern Owens Valley. The REDAs should be reevaluated and reduced to realistic sizes on lands that have already been disturbed, and with a focus on small facilities.”
Some letters also note potential conflicts within identified REDAs. In a letter to the Planning Commission, Lone Pine resident Michael Prather observes that the Preferred REDA map covers areas in Laws and along the Owens River that contain existing Los Angeles Department of Water and Power projects, such as vegetation monitoring sites and the Lower Owens River Project. The map also contains Owens Lake, which is home to a 45 square mile dust mitigation project.
Other letters note potential fiscal impacts to the County, given the reliance of developers on County law enforcement and public works during project construction. Still others question the use of water in a drought-challenged County during construction and maintenance of solar projects, or question the potential impact of solar and wind projects to wildlife, particularly migrating birds.
“Please recommend to the Board of Supervisors that we maintain our Inyo County for its Natural Settings and that there should be renewable energy development that coexists with the beauty, wonder and harmony that only Mother Nature has provided over the eons of time,” concludes a letter from Bishop resident Philip Anaya.
After a 4-1 vote by the Planning Commission to send the REGPA to the Board of Supervisors, how County staff will address these concerns remains to be seen. The Board of Supervisors will consider the REGPA on March 18.