A Tale of Two Counties — California’s Mojave Desert Offers a Bi-Polar Approach to Solar
by Randy Terrell
Although stretching across Utah, Nevada and Arizona, most of the Mojave Desert’s land that is eyed for solar and wind power development is in California. It’s notably slated for two counties—Kern and San Bernardino—the latter being the largest geographic county in the U.S.
In recent years, pushback from rural residents in areas near renewable development have led to denials of major, long-planned projects. The denials by these local decision makers have almost always been because of poor community outreach and communication efforts.
While many renewable developers have made peace with rural residents, some rural areas have told developers to stay away.
Kern County has developed a reputation for being open to solar and wind development.
Adjacent San Bernardino County, however, in recent years has denied large and small projects, and the stream of new developments has trickled to a near halt.
Yet, these two areas share many of the same demographics—rural, Republican voters in areas where income levels are lower compared with their urban counterparts. Kern County went for Trump, and although San Bernardino County overall voted for Clinton, the rural areas where renewable energy locates were strong Trump supporters.
In east Kern County, utility solar development has expanded in the unincorporated communities like Rosamond and Mojave, and local leaders have welcomed it.
“We’ve had long-standing working relationships with all the solar companies that are near Rosamond”, said Terry Landsiedel, President of the Rosamond Chamber of Commerce.
In Kern County, while much of the credit for the warm welcome comes from Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt, who was one of the first County officials to realize that renewable tax revenue was being lost and promptly fixed it, the approach of the renewable energy companies here has been starkly different than in San Bernardino County. For years, solar companies in Kern County have consistently been engaged with the community through workshops, one-on-one meetings, and continuous financial investment into community programs.
In short, solar and wind companies became a part of the community, and although there were detractors, the public eventually saw solar and wind as a part of the local economy.
In San Bernardino County to the east, the reception to renewable development in rural areas has been chillier.
Although San Bernardino County has approved several smaller solar and wind facilities over the past four years, it has denied larger projects due to significant community opposition, and the impact of those denials has led to a drying up of proposed renewable development in the county.
While larger project developers have done their due diligence in performing outreach to the community in San Bernardino County, the effect has always been spotty and intermittent. For most San Bernardino County desert residents, they might hear something nice for a couple of weeks a year, but most of the time it’s about birds being scorched out of the sky at Brightsource Energy’s Ivanpah facility, or Joshua Trees being cut down for any number of other projects.
In 2015, a coalition of rural San Bernardino County residents formed the North Slope Coalition Task Force, and worked for nearly a year to kill a proposed utility wind facility in the mountains near Lucerne Valley, an unincorporated county community east of Victorville.
With that victory, they also managed to sink a major transmission line being proposed by Southern California Edison that opponents argued would invite more wind and solar development.
Just last year, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted against the Soda Mountain Solar Plant, which would have placed a 287-MW, 2,000-acre plant on federal land six miles south of Baker.
The main stated reason for the denial cuts to the heart of the problem for utility solar and wind in San Bernardino County—that the project “would degrade pristine desert land with little benefit to area residents.”
A local Board of Supervisors, influenced by opposition from residents, killed a utility solar project that was on federal land and had been years in the planning process, because they did not see that there was any benefit to them. The stark contrast between Kern and San Bernardino County involves this unique issue—the communication of economic benefits (jobs and community investment) over a consistent stretch of time.
As San Bernardino County debates the merits of the Government’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), the same political dynamic is rearing its head, as Supervisors hear more from angry desert residents than they do the recipients of renewable energy’s economic benefits.
In the vacuum of little to no local communications of the benefits of renewables, the firepower of state or national groups is useless. All politics is local, after all.
If the promotion of renewable energy is diminished in the Trump administration, it will be even more important to take proactive steps to consistently communicate the benefits of renewables to those rural Republicans who live among it.