At Tuesday’s Inyo County Board of Supervisors meeting, County Administrator Kevin Carunchio gave the Supervisors a short history lesson on renewable energy and the County’s Title 21 regulation adopted in 2010.
Carunchio stated that “it all started in 2008 with the financial collapse.” He said that then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger decided to take advantage of the opportunities coming out of Obama’s new economic stimulus program that placed great emphasis on renewable energy development and provided “lots of money” for it.
According to Carunchio, in December, 2009, he spent a day with then-Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) General Manager Daniel Freeman and invited guests to the Owens Valley Dry Lake Bed, as they discussed renewable energy plans that offered potential for dust mitigation and clean renewable energy from solar power at the same time. That group of invited guests included the President of the California Energy Commission, the president of the Public Utilities Commission and the Clinton Climate Change Foundation.
In what would prove telling, Freeman did not rule out the DWP expanding beyond the lake to other areas in the Owens Valley. All of them were interested in DWP land for solar development east of the Owens River.
Fast-forward, and the issues surrounding the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment and controversy over the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch proposal show just how prescient Title 21 would become four years later.
Carunchio returned from that day in 2009 convinced that the County needed a plan to encourage and regulate the development of renewable energy resources. He directed the Planning Department to draft an ordinance for presentation to the County Board.
In 2010, the County ordinance regulating Solar and Wind Renewable Energy Development was approved by the Board. That, according to attorney Greg James, “May allow the County to prevail over DWP if taken to court.”
The ordinance lays out the procedure and permit process that wind and solar developers need to go through on lands over which the County has authority? which is not much.
Carunchio described the last four years “as a search for relevancy,” admitting that “The County has very little authority.”
Yet, Title 21 gives the County authority to assess impacts and to work out a Renewable Energy Development Agreement between the developer and the Board. It also allows the County to require mitigation, a reclamation plan, and payment for impacts on County services.
Had the large-scale utility companies not been exempted from paying property tax on solar panels, the County may have realized as much as $27 million on the $2.7 billion investment that BrightSource Energy LTP proposed and later put “on hold;” a 500-megawatt Solar Thermal Power Plant project on approximately 3,500 acres in Charleston View, north of Old Spanish Trail adjacent to Nevada in Hidden Hills.
“There is virtually no community benefit from these projects,” said Carunchio. “The BrightSource project showed that, with no property tax, the County found itself in a position of having to find ways to minimize losses from southeast Inyo County to provide services.”
The BrightSource project is “not dead,” and the company is still looking at it.
Another concern is that the DWP could make lands available to private companies, excluding the County from the permit process. James reiterated that DWP’s position is that Inyo planning regulations do not apply to their lands in the Owens Valley. Carunchio asked DWP to “submit to the Title 21 process on the SOVSR, but they politely declined.”
Two solar energy projects are currently in the permitting process with the County for development on private land.
According to the Inyo Planning Department’s website, Northland Power Independence, LLC proposes to construct and operate a photovoltaic (PV) power plant located approximately 5 miles east of Independence. The proposed project will generate about 200 megawatts of power and has a useful life of 35 years. The plant will consist primarily of PV panels. Construction is anticipated to begin in 2014, with operations beginning later that year. Access to the project site will be via Mazourka Canyon Road. The applicant is requesting a General Plan Amendment, Zone Reclassification, and Renewable Energy Development Agreement.
Munro Valley Solar is proposing the second project, the construction and operation of a 4.0 megawatt (MW) alternating current (AC) solar photovoltaic (PV) generating facility (“Solar Facility”) over two separate parcels located south of Olancha.
Development projects must be consistent with the County’s General Plan, but both of the projects, currently under the permit process, are not. The General Plan would have to be amended to allow them to go forward.
The County could choose not to change the regulations or enact an emergency ordinance to prevent the projects until the General Plan can be changed. The California Energy Commission must “consider local laws and regulations,” said James, “and that at least would hopefully give the County some leverage.”
Finally, during public comment, Nancy Masters of Independence asked the Board if the public will be allowed to be involved in the Title 21 process. James replied that CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) involves public discussion and comment. Also any Development Agreement with the County Board of Supervisors would be open to general public review and even overturned by public referendum or initiative.