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San Bernardino County says no to big renewables

It may be the largest county in America by land area, but San Bernardino County, Calif., has decided it doesn’t have enough room for big wind or big solar projects. On February 28, the county’s board of supervisors approved a measure that bans large renewable-energy projects on more than 1 million acres of private land.

The move provides yet another example of how the energy sprawl that inevitably comes with large-scale renewable-energy deployment is colliding with the interests of rural landowners and local governments that don’t want “green” projects in their neighborhoods. Of course, there’s no small irony that that collision is happening in California, which passed a law last year that requires utilities to be getting 60 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.

As Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth drily noted, achieving those renewable-energy goals “will require cooperation from local governments – and big solar and wind farms, like many infrastructure projects, are often unpopular at the local level.” All across the country rural landowners and governments have been rejecting or restricting renewable projects, and they’re doing so at the very same time that left-leaning politicians and some of the country’s biggest environmental groups are claiming that the U.S. must quit using hydrocarbons and nuclear energy, and instead rely solely on renewable energy for our electricity.

In January, some 600 environmental groups, including 350.org, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, and the Environmental Working Group, submitted a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives, which said that the U.S. must shift to “100 percent renewable power generation by 2035 or earlier.” It continued, saying any “definition of renewable energy must . . . exclude all combustion-based power generation, nuclear, biomass energy, large-scale hydro, and waste-to-energy technologies.” For good measure, it said this new hypothetical electric grid must have the “ability to incorporate battery storage and distributed energy systems that are democratically governed.”

That last bit about “democratically governed” is the issue in San Bernardino County and elsewhere. The new regulation requires that more than half of the energy produced by new renewable projects in San Bernardino County, which covers more than 20,000 square miles, must be used in local communities. If they don’t meet that standard, the projects won’t be approved. In other words, San Bernardino County, which is already home to two big thermal-solar projects, including Ivanpah and Abengoa Mojave, doesn’t want to be an energy plantation for people who live in other places.

This isn’t the first time that California regulators have rejected renewables. In 2015, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of an ordinance banning large wind turbines in the county’s unincorporated areas. During a hearing on the measure, then-supervisor Michael D. Antonovich said that “wind turbines create visual blight.” In addition, he said, the skyscraper-sized turbines would “contradict the county’s rural dark skies ordinance which aims to protect dark skies in areas like Antelope Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains.”

There are numerous other examples of the growing land-use conflicts around renewable-energy projects. Rural residents in Spotsylvania County, Va., are fighting a proposed 500-megawatt solar project that, if built, would cover nearly ten square miles. According to the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, local residents believe “the project is too big to be near homes and that it poses potential health and environmental risks. They also are concerned about impacts to property values.”

In Henry County, Ind., more than half a dozen small communities have passed measures banning wind turbines within four miles of their borders. In an article last year titled “County Towns Putting Up Walls Against Wind,” Darrel Radford, a reporter for the New Castle Courier-Times, wrote that “there’s still lots of anti-turbine activity” in the county and that “as many as half” of the incorporated communities in the county had passed anti-wind measures.

The land-use fights over renewable energy reflect the urban–rural divide in American politics – a divide that was obvious in the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton won big in urban areas; Donald Trump dominated in rural areas. Big environmental groups and urban liberal voters like the idea of renewable energy and want more of it. But the all-renewable scenario they are pushing depends on what I call the vacant-land myth: There’s an endless amount of unused, uninteresting territory out in the boondocks that’s ready and waiting to be covered with energy infrastructure.

The urban–rural divide is particularly obvious in New York, which has a 50 percent renewable-electricity mandate by 2030. Despite the mandate, three upstate New York counties – Erie, Orleans, and Niagara – as well as the towns of Yates and Somerset, have been fighting a proposed 200-megawatt wind project called Lighthouse Wind for four years. In an interview on Wednesday, I asked Dan Engert, the supervisor in Somerset, about the urban–rural divide and how it affects the promotion and siting of renewable-energy projects.

“Those urban voters will never have to deal with the reality of a wind project in their backyard,” Engert told me. “As these projects move closer to humans and where people live, you are seeing resistance in places” across rural America.

The punchline here is obvious: The urban–rural divide in American politics is growing, and a key part of that divide is the debate over climate change and what we as a society should be doing about it. The anti-hydrocarbon, anti-nuclear Left fastidiously ignores the land-use implications of their all-renewable plans. But rural residents in places such as San Bernardino County, Somerset, and Henry County are not going to be ignored.

As Sara Fairchild, a resident of Pioneertown in San Bernardino County, told the supervisors during the hearing last week, “These vast open areas are precious for their natural, historical and recreational qualities . . . . They are fragile, and no amount of mitigation can counter the damage that industrial-scale renewable-energy projects would cause.” She added: “Once destroyed, these landscapes can never be brought back.”