Greens Fight Giant Solar Farm in SoCal


      SAN DIEGO (CN) – Environmentalists sued San Diego County and five solar power companies, claiming a massive proposed solar project will destroy thousands of acres of “irreplaceable wildlife habitat.”
     Solar Development, a French company, wants to build four industrial solar facilities on 1,185 acres of rural desert land in eastern San Diego County’s Boulevard community. Boulevard, pop. 315, is south of Interstate 8 and about 38 miles west of El Centro.
     Backcountry Against Dumps and its leader, Boulevard resident Donna Tisdale, sued San Diego County, two lobbyists, several people and companies that have interest in the properties to be developed, and the developers, Soitec Solar, Tierra Del Sol Solar Farm LLC, Rugged Solar LLC, LanEast Solar Farm LLC and LanWest, on March 4 in Superior Court.
     The project, if built, will generate 140 megawatts of electricity using concentrated photovoltaic panels. Unlike the more common fixed photovoltaic systems, concentrated photovoltaic panels include tracking systems that enable them to follow the sun across the sky.
     The Tierra Del Sol component, near the Mexican border, would include 2,499 trackers on 420 acres and deliver 60 megawatts of energy to the Boulevard substation via a 6-mile-long dual-circuit transmission line carried on 125- to 150-foot tall power poles, according to the complaint.
     The larger Rugged project would place 3,291 trackers on 765 acres at the public entrance to the McCain Valley. It will deliver 80 megawatts of energy to the Boulevard substation via alignment with transmission lines at the proposed Tule Wind Energy project, which is near the Rugged project site.
     The Board of Supervisors on March 4 denied permits for the Tierra Del Sol component, at the company’s request, but the Rugged facility is still slated for construction, according to the board’s minute order .
     In addition to the solar trackers and transmission cable lines, the project will include a 160-megawatt lithium-ion battery storage system housed in 160 large shipping containers across 7 acres of the Rugged site. The storage battery first appeared in the final project environmental impact report as alternative 2, according to the complaint.
     Tisdale told Courthouse News that the Soitec project’s location is one of its most troubling aspects.
     It is slated for a rural, high fire-risk area that is groundwater-dependent and not zoned for industrial use, she said.
     It is also near the McCain Valley Resource Conservation Area.
     Established in 1963, the McCain Valley covers 38,692 acres of public land overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Large oak trees shade the valley’s chaparral hills and fan palm oases, which are home to the Peninsular bighorn sheep and several other desert species. People visit year-round to go hiking, backpacking and horseback riding on the winding trails, camp in the high desert, and view local wildlife, according to the Bureau’s McCain Valley page.
     The Bureau of Land Management is not a party to the complaint.
     Tisdale says in the complaint that she lives on a ranch north of the Tierra Del Sol project site. She claims the project will deplete groundwater, which she relies on for her ranch, reduce the amount of available agricultural land, and will prevent her from enjoying the beautiful views on her property.
     The complaint describes the project area as “pristine, desert setting which supports a wide range of habitats and biological communities including scrub, chaparral, and woodland.”
     It is home to several threatened and endangered plant species, such as the Tecate tarplant and Jacumba milk vetch, and endangered animals, including the Blainville’s horned lizard, northern red-diamond rattlesnake, golden eagle, turkey vulture, San Diego black-tailed jackrabbit, and several species of bats, according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs say the Soitec project will “destroy 1,185 acres of irreplaceable wildlife habitat and undeveloped open space, and replace it with industrial-scale energy development that will cut through the heart of the quiet and scenic Boulevard community. … By approving this project, the board has placed a speculative bet on unproven technology, while guaranteeing the destruction of Boulevard’s bucolic beauty and rural quality of life.”
     The Board of Supervisors approved the Soitec project on Feb. 4 despite an inadequate environmental impact report, the plaintiffs say. They claim it does not accurately describe the project and its impacts to wildlife or offer a reasonable range of alternatives, among other deficiencies.
     The final impact report “is neither factually nor financially responsible and should be rejected,” Tisdale wrote in a PowerPoin t presentation she gave to the Board of Supervisors in February.
     “Weasel words, obfuscation, and unsupported assumptions are used to down play and manipulate Soitec’s real world impacts, that will destroy existing rural uses and community character,” Tisdale wrote.
     “It is a fairy tale where all bad things are magically mitigated into mere nothingness.”
     The plaintiffs claim the project, and the county’s approval of it and the environmental impact report violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the public resources code and county zoning laws.
     “The project was ‘greenwashed’ to obscure and bury its horrendous environmental impacts behind the façade of ‘renewable energy.’ Notwithstanding these impacts, the project was certified by the governor as an ‘environmental leadership’ project under PRC sections 21182 to 21184,” the complaint states.
     Soitec applied for permits in 2012. The Board of Supervisors issued a notice of preparation for the environmental studies in early December that year, and a draft report was issued Jan. 2, 2014. A little over a year later, the project was approved.
     Tisdale said the project’s expedited approval process is troubling.
     The Board of Supervisors considered it “such an important project that they gave it overriding consideration on zoning and planning. It throws zoning and planning out the window to benefit a company on its way out the door,” Tisdale said. “It makes no sense.”
     Soitec’s board of directors voted early this month to leave the solar market and focus on the company’s microelectronics business.
     After San Diego Gas & Electric terminated its power purchase agreements with Soitec in December 2014, any regional benefits the project may bring from clean energy have been negated, according to Tisdale’s presentation.
     The plaintiffs say they submitted comments at every step of the approval process, urging Soitec to analyze impacts to the county water supply, public health and global warming, among other things, and to consider distributing solar panels to the community to put on rooftops and other existing structures.
     Doing so could prevent the need to “convert existing wildlife habitat and open space … into a 30-foot-high glass and steel industrial-scale operation occupying nearly two square miles in the aggregate,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs also take issue with the project’s enormous estimated water demands in a drought-stricken area that has no surface water. According to the final project impact report, the construction phase will require at least 49 million gallons of water for dust control, soil stabilization and other needs. Once built, project components will use a combined 4,646,708 gallons of water each year (14¼ acre-feet) to wash the tracker units, which needs to be done every six to eight weeks, the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs claim the final project environmental impact report fails to analyze the project’s direct, indirect and cumulative environmental impacts and does not discuss an adequate range of mitigation measures and alternatives, in violation of CEQA.
     Among other things, they say, the project poses an immense threat to birds, which may die trying to land on the reflective solar collectors due to the “pseudo-lake effect,” while the chain-link and barbed wire fences to be erected around the sites will disrupt the migration of birds and bighorn sheep.
     Though the project is in a desert prone to wildfires, the report used inaccurate firefighting response time and mileage data to conclude that its presence will not affect ground and aerial firefighting efforts, and ignored the extreme fire hazard posed by the lithium-ion storage batteries, the plaintiffs say.
     Tisdale told Courthouse News that government fast-tracking of the project had a lot to do with political favoritism.
     She says that two lobbyists for companies associated with Soitec, defendants James Waring and James Whalen, co-hosted a fundraiser at Waring’s home for Supervisor David Roberts’ re-election campaign eight days after the board voted to approve the Soitec project, which she calls a violation of county regulations.
     The board’s approval of the project is “putting communities and resources at risk,” Tisdale said.
     Requests for comment to San Diego County counsel and Supervisor Dave Roberts were not returned by the close of business hours Tuesday.
     The plaintiffs seek writ of mandate ordering the board to revoke approval of the project and its impact report on the grounds that such approvals violate CEQA and San Diego County codes.
     They also want an injunction preventing the defendants from doing any construction on the project until the county does another environmental study that complies with CEQA and all applicable laws and ordinances.
     They are represented by Stephen C. Volker of Oakland.

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