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No sunny welcome for solar developer in Pine Valley  

Planning Group member Warren Larkin said the planners “love green energy” but objected to the aesthetics of the project. He added pointedly, “Once they get a foot in the door, what’s going to happen? Look at Boulevard. Little did they know when that first windmill went in that they were going to be raped,” he said, referring to a barrage of industrial-scale wind and solar projects proposed in Boulevard, where County Supervisors changed the General Plan to allow industrial-scale projects in the rural area, wiping out many protections for Boulevard residents.

Credit:  By Miriam Raftery | East County Magazine | October 9, 2013 | eastcountymagazine.org ~~

Planners and residents provided a frosty reception to representatives from ecoplexus tonight. Planners voted unanimously, 11-0, to find the company’s proposed solar project inconsistent with the Central Mountain Regional Plan and the County’s General Plan.

By energy industry standards, this is a small “green” project—three megawatts on two 12-acre parcels at Buckman Springs Road and Old Highway 80. But to residents in this rural area, the project seems substantial intrusion along scenic highways without tangible benefits to Pine Valley residents.

To say it was a tough crowd would be an understatement.

Area residents are jaded by experiences with fast-talking energy representatives who have breezed into the area pushing forward industrial wind, solar and powerline projects–often showing little regard for community impacts and breaking promises along the way.

Senior project manager Gary Eberhart and Carlos Valdivia from ecoplexus’ project development division did their best to present the project. In a more cooperative spirit than some confrontational larger corporate energy companies, they offered to work with the community to make improvements and try to address concerns where possible.

“We want to do something beautiful for the whole world,” Valdivia began, launching into the merits of shifting to clean renewable fuels instead of relying on polluting fossil fuels or risks of radiation from nuclear facilites.

Their company focuses on rooftop and small-scale utility solar, not giant desert solar projects. The ecoplexus representatives sought to allay some common backcountry project concerns. Planners were assured that the project would use no water from local wells or groundwater during construction or operation; water would be trucked in. A fence resembling landscaping could camouflage the facility; a photo showed flowering faux-vines. No herbicides would be used, according to ecoplexus; weeds would be whacked by hand.

“We are open to suggestions about how to mitigate,” Valdivia added. He also claimed the project would not pose a fire hazard or cause glare. In 20 years, poles could be removed (there is no concrete) and land could be restored to agriculture, if desired.

The project would rely on feed-in tariffs and has approval from SDG&E to connect up to the grid, he said. Power would be used in the Pine Valley area first, with surplus power passed on to other locations.

That didn’t satisfy planners or community members, however.

“I haven’t seen anything on utility bills going down,” planning group member Brandon Perry chided. “This only benefits the landowner, you, and the developer.”

Valdivia admitted he could not say that rates would go down. But he insisted that SDG&E could not pass on the costs of this project to ratepayers, either. “That’s a fact.”

That was small comfort to residents who have seen their electric bill rise as much as 40%, as one speaker noted, in a county that already pays the highest electric rates in the nation.

Vern Denham, planning group member, questioned the power production estimates. Even if correct, he observed, “This is nothing; 650 homes won’t even power Pine Valley.”

Anne Steinemann, another member, asked about stray voltage and other problems seen at other local energy projects recently. “There is evidence of property values going down, so there are no benefits, but there are negatives.”

Denham implied that rural East County has been targeted while wealthier communities have not. “Do you have any desires to put these up in Del Mar, La Jolla or Rancho Santa Fe?” he asked.

Coastal fog would make it impractical to operate a solar farm near the coast, Valdivia responded, adding that East County is one of the few places with ample flat, open land.

Denham observed that a major use would be required to rezone the agricultural property to commercial and that these are difficult to get. The developer indicated it would try to retain the agricultural zoning

“Let’s keep Pine Valley, Guatay, et cetera as the kind of rural, sleepy places that we’d like to call home,” he concluded.

Planning Group member Warren Larkin said the planners “love green energy” but objected to the aesthetics of the project. He added pointedly, “Once they get a foot in the door, what’s going to happen? Look at Boulevard. Little did they know when that first windmill went in that they were going to be raped,” he said, referring to a barrage of industrial-scale wind and solar projects proposed in Boulevard, where County Supervisors changed the General Plan to allow industrial-scale projects in the rural area, wiping out many protections for Boulevard residents.

Next, the audience peppered the panel with questions, Inquisition-style.

Fire danger was the first issue raised. “Those lines also go to Golden Acorn Casino. They are already tapped out. Two of those poles blew down last year and almost caused a fire,” a resident said. “You will need new lines.” The solar company representatives denied that new lines would be needed.

ECM editor Miriam Raftery revealed that an ECM investigation has found many closures, or dark days of rural fire stations, since the County Fire Authority began its takeover. That includes 28 dark days at Boulevard’s fire station last month during peak fire season. Raftery asked where fire protection would come from for the project and if planners had checked to verify if stations are adequately manned. Planners were unaware of the closures but indicated they wanted to learn more.

Joseph Moore asked about the potential for dust storms if landscaping was stripped bare. “You will have a wind storm,” he predicted. Eberhart said the project would have vegetation under and around panels, since dust blowing up would degrade the solar panels. Poles are inserted by vibrating them downward, he added. “We don’t wholesale grade; we try to leave as much ungraded as possible.”

Another audience member said Arroyo Toads are found on the site, which would require mitigation at a five to one ratio. “You will need to go out and find over 100 acres,” he said.

The next audience member asked how many jobs would be created and where the panels would come from. Eberhart replied, “Not much in the way of long-term operation,” since the site will be monitored remotely. There will be a “short bump” with construction hires locally, along with biologists and other researchers. Project components will come from around the world, including panels from China, trackers and inverters from the U.S.

Kelly Fuller of Japatul spoke on behalf of the Protect Our Communities Foundation, a nonprofit which has sued over other energy projects in the region. She formerly worked with the American Bird Conservancy at a national level, including the group’s bird collision program. “There is a problem with birds colliding with solar facilities,” she said, adding that information is emerging just this summer suggesting that migratory birds may be mistaking a sea of shimmering solar panels for water.

Fuller later told ECM that at least 61 dead birds have been found at Genesis Solar alone. “On a per megawatt basis, that starts approaching wind” for the high rate of birds killed, she said. At Ivanpah, which uses a different technology, “the risk is getting burned and collisions.” The most relevant project to the proposed one here , where migratory birds are seen, is Desert Sunlight, which has also had bird deaths, she said.

In her testimony to planners she laid out the problem. “We don’t know how many are killed because no searches are being done.” Reports of bird deaths have been incidental, reported by people who happened to find some dead birds. These kills are illegal because the birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Endangered Species Act.

“Are you working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and California Fish and Game to make sure your facility will not kill birds? Are you planning to search and find them…and are you prepared to deal with problems of damages?” she asked, noting that counts can still undercount daths due to scavengers taking away dead birds. “You didn’t talk about what it would look like from the air to birds,” she said, adding that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has convened a task force on the problem.

Denham chimed in, speaking to the developers, “I’m told when you were down talking to the people in Descanso you told them it looks like a glistening lake of water.”

Eberhart indicated he was unfamiliar with the bird kill issue. “We’re at the very initial stages,” he said.

Next, a spokesman from the University of California San Diego’s observatory on Mount Laguna spoke. He said the observatory just installed a new 50-inch telescope and looks down on the project site. “You are within the C ounty Light Restriction Ordinance,” he said, adding that yellow sodium lights are preferred and any white light must point down. If up, the university could create a lawsuit.”

Eberhart assured that the site would have only two lights, both on motion sensors, for safety and that they “probably would shine down.” He added, “If there is no motion, there is no light. I care about the footprint that I leave.”

The audience member added that developers will need to deal with the U.S. Forest Service since this impacts the Pacific Coast Trail. “There is a five year wait now,” he said.

Another area resident voiced concerns over winds that have exceeded 80 miles per hour and blown over trucks in the past. The project backers assured that a prior project has withstood Hurricane Sandy and that this would be built to withstand strong winds.

Concern was raised over hang gliders who land in the field, with permission from a local landowner, where the project is slated to go. No response was provided.

Several speakers asked why the ecoplexus doesn’t move the project away from Highways 80 and I-8, both of which have scenic designations. “You say we’re greedy developers, but landowners want a lot of money,” said Eberhart, adding that projects must also be close to infrastructure to make financial sense.

Another citizen voiced skepticism over claims by energy developers, noting that a bird expert hired by wind companies for two local projects “just got indicted,” a reference to David Bittner who pled guilty to federal charges of mishandling birds after it was revealed he had no permits.

Concern was also raised that solar projects can draw insects and potentially kill bees, which are already declining in population in our region.

Ecoplexus representatives countered that conventional energy projects kill more birds and bees than solar. “This is not a utopia,” Eberhart countered. “There are trade-offs.”

A man from Imperial Valley spoke to warn that after a geothermal project was approved near his home, it opened the door to many more energy projects. “Does it matter what the community wants?” he asked.

Eberhart said he hopes the company might be able to get a conditional use permit to keep the land zoned agricultural, so that in 20 years after the lease runs out it could be returned to that use.

Denham called the Pine Valley region a “uunique jewel in the county” and voiced his opinion of the project that “so many things in here are just prohibitive.”

Valdivia asked that a vote be deferred so ecoplexus could do a visual analysis and return in two months, also giving time for biologists to assess the site.

Planning group member Story Vogel , who earlier had raised concerns over loss of agricultural lands, motioned for the project to be approved but no one seconded the motion. He then made a second motion for the project to be found inconsistent with the Central Mountain Regional Plan and the County General Plan. That motion passed unanimously by an 11-0 vote, with all members present. (There are currently two vacancies on the board.)

Denham said the project had unmitigatable issues but said the developer could return to the board after studies were done. But planners clearly put the company on notice that the outlook is far from sunny for winning their approval.

The Pine Valley Planning Group is an advisory board only, however, meaning the final decision on approval will rest with the County Planning Commission and ultimately the Board of Supervisors.

ECM asked Eberhart for his reaction after the meeting and whether he felt such objections could be overcome. “This is the very beginning of the process,” he said.

Buckman Springs was once home to a bottled water facility in the 1800s and was a stage coach stop. The valley’s natural springs have long since dried up, but the verdant meadows remain, abloom with flowers in spring, trees donning a coat of fall foliage in the fall. The ruins of Amos Buckman’s a pioneer home can still be seen (photo, right).

Other small-scale solar projects on agricultural lands have met with increasing resistance in neighboring communities, such as Descanso, though Supervisors recently approved a Ramona solar project on agricultural property over objections from some community members. Support is fueled in part by state renewable energy mandates and federal energy subsidies for renewable energy projects aimed at encouraging projects that could provide energy independence through clean technologies and help alleviate global warming

But in Pine Valley last night, a chill in the air wasn’t just from the first cool breathe of autum weather.

Dozens of residents concerned over protecting the rural backcountry turned out; none spoke in favor of the project. Some voiced support for green energy projects such as rooftop solar. But they object to rural communities being overwhelmed by countless new energy projects while wealtheir coastal areas are not being asked to sacrifice their community character, open spaces, or cherishsed scenic views.

Source:  By Miriam Raftery | East County Magazine | October 9, 2013 | eastcountymagazine.org

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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