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Solar power plants burden the counties that host them

Eager for jobs and tax money, Mojave Desert counties welcomed big solar projects. But they may have been too optimistic. And expanding emergency services and infrastructure isn't cheap.

November 25, 2012|By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times
  • “Nobody is outright against these [solar] projects,” said Kevin Carunchio, Inyo County’s administrative official, but “we don’t think we should have to bear the cost for energy that is being exported to metropolitan areas.”
“Nobody is outright against these [solar] projects,” said… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

When it comes to attracting business to California's eastern deserts, Inyo County is none too choosy.

Since the 19th century the sparsely populated county has worked to attract industries shunned by others, including gold, tungsten and salt mining. The message: Your business may be messy, but if you plan to hire our residents, the welcome mat is out.

So the county grew giddy last year as it began to consider hosting a huge, clean industry. BrightSource Energy, developer of the proposed $2.7-billion Hidden Hills solar power plant 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles, promised a bounty of jobs and a windfall in tax receipts. In a county that issued just six building permits in 2011, Inyo officials first estimated that property taxes from the facility would boost the general fund 17%.

But upon closer inspection, the picture didn't seem so rosy.

An economic consultant hired by the county found that property tax revenue would be a fraction of the customary amount because portions of the plant qualifiy for a solar tax exclusion. Fewer than 10 local workers would land permanent positions — and just 5% of the construction jobs would be filled by county residents. And construction workers are likely to spend their money across the nearby state line, in Nevada.

Worse, the project would cost the county $11 million to $12 million during the 30-month construction phase, with much of the money going to upgrade a historic two-lane road to the plant. Once the plant begins operation, the county estimates taxpayers will foot the bill for nearly $2 million a year in additional public safety and other services.

Two of California's other Mojave Desert counties, Riverside and San Bernardino, have made similar discoveries. Like Inyo, they are now pushing back against solar developers, asking them to cover the costs of servicing the new industry.

"Southern California is going to become the home to the state's ability to meet its solar goals," said Gerry Newcombe, public works director for San Bernardino County. "That's great, but where are the benefits to the county?"

Desert counties also are anticipating costly shifts in land use, including the conversion of taxable private property into habitat for endangered species. Solar developers are required to buy land to offset the loss of habitat caused by their projects. Once the property is acquired, it cannot be developed, which reduces its potential for tax revenue.

Two of the largest solar plants in the world are under construction in San Bernardino County. But county officials are not sure if revenue from the projects will offset the cost of additional fire and safety services, which analysts say will amount to millions of dollars a year.

For example, the $2.2-billion Ivanpah solar project at the county's eastern border has agreed to pay $377,000 annually, but that may not be enough to cover the county's new costs related to the plant. The county doesn't know how much solar plants will drain from its budget because the projects are being planned and approved too quickly for adequate analysis, officials say.

"We really support private development and generating jobs," Newcombe said. "On the other hand, I am concerned that it's going too fast. I don't know that we've had a chance to appreciate the long-term impacts."

The county is also worried because most of the land inside its borders is owned by the federal government, and up to 1 million acres of that — nearly 8% of the county — could be set aside for solar development, removing it from public access and recreational opportunities, Newcombe said.

Counties that object to the pace of development, however, have been scolded for standing in the way of progress. Not only is renewable energy a priority of the Obama administration, it is also the darling of California's chief executive.

Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to "crush" opponents of solar projects. At the launch of a solar farm near Sacramento, the governor pledged: "It's not easy. There are gonna be screw-ups. There are gonna be bankruptcies. There'll be indictments and there'll be deaths. But we're gonna keep going — and nothing's gonna stop me."

Counties have little say because the state controls planning and licensing of large-scale projects. The California Energy Commission issues the permits for utility-scale solar farms, and counties depend on the commission's staff to look out for their interests.

To the extent that California counties are pushing back against industrial solar, the rebellion began in Riverside County more than a year ago.

Some 20 utility-scale solar farms are proposed in the eastern stretch of the county on 118,000 acres of federal land along the Interstate 10 corridor between Desert Center and Blythe.

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