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In the face of sustained public outcry over a potential deluge of large-scale, industrial solar and wind projects throughout Inyo County, the county board of supervisors agreed Tuesday to postpone a March 18 vote on a county General Plan amendment that many fear will open the flood gates to such development.
An existing proposal by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to locate a 1,200-acre, 200 megawatt solar project near the Manzanar National Historic Site was the catalyst; a project that has generated a firestorm of criticism and created strange bedfellows out of ranchers, environmentalists and the Japanese American community of Southern California.
The criticism reached a cresendo this week, prompting the supervisors to put off making a decision on whether to approve the â€śRenewable Energy General Plan Amendmentâ€ť (REGPA) at their next meeting on March 18.
Instead, the countyâ€™s planning department will give a presentation on the project, something that planning director Josh Hart said will allow for more time to educate the public and clear up misinformation being circulated in the community.
Locally, LADWPâ€™s proposal has been called a good project in a bad locationâ€”an undertaking that when finished, will reduce Los Angelesâ€™ reliance on non-renewable energy sources but, according to local opponents, will permanently scar 1,200 acres of wild and historically important landscape.
Proponents and supporters, as well as top county officials, have called the project a potential economic boon to the Owens Valley by way of the temporary workforce it will bring in during construction, and the 10 permanent jobs it will leave behind.
At the same time, other locals, and the Japanese American communities of Southern California, have said the project would be an affront to the National Park Serviceâ€™s attempts to preserve Manzanar National Historic Site.
The fear in the Owens Valley is that the REGPA will allow a flood of project requests from energy developers, who are under pressure from the state to meet green energy mandates.
The current draft amendment, despite overwhelming public opposition, was approved by the Inyo County Planning Commission at its Feb. 26 meeting and sent to the Board of Supervisors for ultimate approval.
The REGPA is a revised version of a 2011 amendment that identifies 11 areas throughout the countyâ€”from Laws to Death Valleyâ€”suitable for large-scale industrial renewable energy development.
One of those areas is a swath of land between Independence and Lone Pine, including the very spot where LADWP wants to erect its controversial solar ranch.
The project is proposed on 1,200 acres about six miles southeast of Independence, 10 miles north of Lone Pine, and four miles west of U.S. 395.
Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey has said the proposed solar ranch â€śrepresents new heights for LADWPâ€™s insensitivityâ€ť toward Mazanar, which LADWP tried to prevent from becoming a federally designated National Historic Site in 1991.
â€śThe very idea that any land in or around the Manzanar National Historic Site could be used for a massive generating facility that would not harm the ongoing efforts to preserve and understand the tragedy of justice that occurred there is simply beyond insensitive, and itâ€™s not just insensitive to the Japanese American community, the survivors of Americaâ€™s concentration camps and their families,â€ť Embrey said.
LADWP, meanwhile, has taken exception to the Manzanar Committeeâ€™s characterization of how it chose its project locationâ€”categorically denying an insensitive or disrespectful approach to Manzanar.
â€śAbsolutely not,â€ť said LADWP Director of Power Systems Planning and Development Randy Howard. â€śIâ€™m personally surprised at the level of their comments.â€ť
The site was chosen, he said, for its proximity to existing transmission lines and because LADWP could create the â€śleast impact on the Owens Valleyâ€ť at that location.
Manzanar was one of 10 war relocation centers during WWII, and â€śhomeâ€ť to a population that was two-thirds children and teenagers. It is these former interneesâ€”the Nisei, or second-generation born in Americaâ€”who have waged the most prominent and vocal battle against LADWPâ€™s planned solar project.
Groups opposing the solar ranchâ€”the Big Pine Paiute Tribe, the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe the Owens Valley Committeeâ€”have taken exception not just to the potential visual impacts on Manzanar, but on the valley as a whole.
Residents and groups opposed to the project have also gone on record as saying the solar ranch would destroy historical and archeological resources, wreak havoc on native vegetation and lead to a noxious weed problem, disrupt the flood plain, and create ideal conditions for worse dust storms than the area already experiences.
There is also concern about the precedent of LADWP using lands it owns that it has publicly promised to keep free of development.
Background and project scope
The utility released its Draft EIR in late August, which marked the first time it formally identified the 1,200 acres east of Manzanar as not only a possible site for its solar ranch, but the preferred site.
Thus it came as a surprise to anyone following the project when the Draft EIR released three years later contained an analysis for a site not previously identified.
At the site across from Manzanar, the utility proposes ground-mounting 1-2 million crystalline solar photovoltaic panels to a steel or aluminum framework in 50 megawatt blocks for a total of 200 MW of power. The energy would be diverted directly to the Inyo-Rinaldi transmission line.
In addition to the solar array, LADWP would build a 300,000 square-foot substation, 3,000 square-foot maintenance building, various access roads, fencing and other security featuresâ€”all over a five-and-a-half year period starting with the substation and moving on to the solar arrays in mid-2016.
LADWP proposes to have the first 50 MW block up and running by the end of 2016.
The result of LADWPâ€™s project, if approved and once fully operational, would be 440-gigawatt hours of clean, renewable energy annually for Los Angeles. According to the Draft EIR, thatâ€™s enough energy to power about 75,000 households in L.A. and meet the stateâ€™s renewable energy mandates.
At its peak in late 2015, the project would require 350 workers on site, a figure that will be scaled down to a steady 220 workers during the final year of construction.
Inyo County, which has no regulatory authority over the project, will not see any additional property tax from the project nor any sales and use tax, which will go to Los Angeles, where the energy produced will actually be used.
The county also predicts costly impacts to services and infrastructure as a result of the project.
On Oct. 15, the County Board of Supervisors took public comment for about an hour before approving the countyâ€™s official response to the Draft EIR. The board now awaiting LADWPâ€™s presentation of a draft Memorandum of Understanding with LADWP that, among other perks, gives the county $4.5 million to offset project impacts in exchange for the county not commenting on the Final EIR or challenging the project.
Copies of the Draft EIR are available at all public libraries and online at www.ladwp.com/envnotices.