MORONGO BASIN —- In the rush to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, the Southern California desert is a prime target for land. The Morongo Basin is no exception.
Five utility-scale solar projects have been proposed in the Morongo Basin, the county reports.
One project, a two-megawatt alternating current solar site on 20 acres, already is under construction on Lear Avenue, just outside Twentynine Palms. San Bernardino County has also granted Conditional Use Permits for a 100-acre, 12-megawatt AC solar field in the same area and another site just outside Twentynine Palms near Indian Trail, which would generate nine megawatts of power.
Axio Power, the company behind a proposed 20-megawatt Cascade solar project in Joshua Tree, describes the area as “one of the sunniest locations in the U.S.”
Companies are submitting requests for projects faster than each area can keep up with, spurred by government incentives and the race for viable land. A 2008 executive order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for the state to draw 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Gov. Jerry Brown signed the order into law in April 2011.
The new law sought to streamline the siting and permitting of renewable-energy projects throughout Southern California’s deserts.
The order led to creation of the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which is still in the planning phase.
Developing the DRECP is a joint effort between the Bureau of Land Management, the California Energy Commission, the Department of Fish and Game and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The plan identifies renewable energy study areas, evaluating everything from sensitive wildlife activity to transmission potential. The goal is to provide renewable energy developers with a road map for development, pinpointing the most appropriate sites for projects, Dave Harlow, director of the DRECP, said by phone Monday.
“The overall purpose is to streamline the permitting of projects,” Harlow said. “It just gives greater certainty to developers who can locate in those areas.” Harlow explained that the DRECP will lead to reduced need for environmental reviews, because most of the suggested development zones will be identified after environmental studies and impacts to species are completed.
Harlow said the DRECP will be available for public comment sometime in late summer 2012.
What’s the benefit of going green?
A map created by the Renewable Energy Action Team identifies renewable energy projects that were under way in 2011 throughout the state. On the map, a large corridor from Joshua Tree to Twentynine Palms is coded as a possible competitive renewable energy zone.
In addition to existing applications for solar sites, the city of Twentynine Palms is developing standards for commercial solar facilities in its city limits.
But as government leaders look at empty desert lands as prime real estate for energy projects, many residents are fighting to preserve the desert’s open spaces and view sheds.
At a Joshua Tree Municipal Advisory Council meeting in June, several curious and skeptical residents asked pointed questions about the Cascade Solar project. Residents pushed for rooftop solar panels in Joshua Tree, instead of solar developers.
An active coalition called Save Our Desert also is rallying against proposals for wind energy development in the rural and pristine Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa areas of Pipes Canyon and Pioneertown.
Similarly, in Twentynine Palms, city planning commissioners anticipate solar farms will make minuscule contributions to the local economy and are reluctant to welcome large-scale projects.
“One of my concerns, quite frankly, is what is the benefit to the community, by just saying we’re green?” Planning Commissioner Bill Easter asked at a Feb. 7 meeting in Twentynine Palms. Easter and his fellow commissioners pointed to lost opportunities for sales tax revenue and the limited full-time, permanent jobs associated with solar development.
Still, opposition may not be enough to stave off solar fields.
In July 2011, a clean energy bill package allotted millions toward renewable energy projects.
Additionally, companies can take advantage of a current tax exemption on equipment will last until 2016, Freeman Hall, president of Solar Electric Solutions, said Tuesday.
Revenue from projects ‘is significant’
Hall’s company is responsible for three of the four solar projects slated for Twentynine Palms, including the one under construction.
Hall said after the state exemption expires in 2016, companies will be taxed based on each piece of equipment on their sites, just like manufacturing plants. This will be in addition to taxes on the actual real estate, which the company already pays.
“The revenue from the projects is significant. We do pay property tax on the land and any improvements to the land,” Hall said by phone Tuesday.
The solar site developer speculates that even with the Basin’s plethora of sunshine, only a limited number of projects will be feasible.
“We’ve conducted a lot of technical studies that look at the grid and we know we’re approaching a threshold where there won’t be the ability for the distribution system to cost-effectively handle new generation,” Hall said.
He suspects that the renewable energy projects currently proposed, along with Southern California Edison Project Leatherneck substation upgrade, will soon be enough to meet the Basin’s energy demands.
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