Hearing April 5 for County Supervisors to weigh the Regional Decarbonization Framework
Public urged to speak at meeting and submit comments by March 31 deadline at project website
By Miriam Raftery
Hear our interview with Bill Powers, Protect Our Communities Foundation, recorded four days before the nonprofit group filed a lawsuit against the County.
March 8, 2023 (San Diego) – The Protect Our Communities Foundation (POCF) has filed a lawsuit against the County of San Diego contending that the County hired a biased utility industry consultant direct the County’s Regional Decarbonization Framework (RDF) and that the RDF’s conclusions are skewed toward utilities’ interests over consumers’ interests based on flawed data. The suit also names the University of California as a defendant, contending that UCSD concealed researcher David Victor’s financial ties to the utility industry when it won a no-bid contract from the County to prepare the report that Victor co-authored.
In an exclusive interview with East County Magazine aired on KNSJ radio four days before the suit was filed in late February, Bill Powers, an engineer and board member on the Protect Our Communities Foundation, discussed why the organization is taking a stand against the RDF. He contends that if approved by Supervisors as written, it could result in fast-tracking industrial-scale wind and solar projects in our backcountry, even waiving environmental impact reviews, when it would be more economical to build rooftop and parking lot solar in urban areas – without harm to local communities and environmental habitats.
Protect Our Communities Foundation is a nonprofit that supports clean energy solutions, defends and environment, and promotes affordable electricity rates. It was formed initially to oppose Sunrise Powerlink, SDG&E’s high voltage transmission line which it successfully kept out of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. The group uses advocacy and legal channels to fight for clean energy projects that protect communities and opposes industrial-scale wind and solar projects in the backcountry that can destroy ecosystems and harm quality of life for residents.
The County describes its RDF as a “science-based, holistic approach to guide the region’s decarbonization efforts” in partnership with UCSD’s School of Global Policy and Strategy as well as USD’s Policy Initiatives Center. The County and UCSD do not comment on pending litigation.
Powers says he first learned of the County’s RDF plan while working with residents to oppose a major solar farm proposed n Jacumba Hot Springs – a project Powers contends is “just another example of pushing renewable energy out into the backcountry areas when the utility is opposed to putting solar on rooftops and parking lots in a painless way that would achieve decarbonization faster, more effectively and more democratically.”
After reviewing the County’s decarbonization report, Powers concludes, “To me, it was San Diego Gas & Electric’s preferred strategy with a County cover on it. We started digging into the numbers and the numbers were skewed. They were wrong. ..If you have factually accurate information, you are not going to be proposing a strategy that paves over the backcountry with solar and wind plants. You’re putting in town and you’re not building expensive transmission lines.”
Shockingly, the County’s plan completely omitted the $3.9 billion estimated cost to build proposed transmission lines form Imperial County to hook up to about 2,000 megawatts of solar and wind power imported from remote areas. “Had they included that cost, it would have flipped the script,” says Powers.
The County’s own report mentions the $3.9 billion cost of new transmission lines in two places, but inexplicably, the County failed to include that cost in its calculation on the total costs of its decarbonization plan. Instead, they use a far smaller cost figure.
Of note, SDG&E now makes most of its money from building transmission lines, not from producing and selling power. That’s because many communities have opted to buy power now from community choice aggregates instead of from SDG&E.
Victor, who authored the report, also serves as Chair of the community engagement panel set up by Southern California Edison to monitor decommissioning of the San Onofre nuclear plant. That panel that Victor chairs also got $840,000 from SDG&E in 2021 – the same year that UCSD received the no-bid contract from the County. The POCF unearthed those findings through public records requests and contends that Victor’s financial beholding to SDG&E was hidden – funding that is arguably a blatant conflict of interest.
“This project should have been competitively bid. Instead, it was handed to this consultant,” says Powers, adding that there were no checks and balances or screening for conflicts of interest. “They were determined to be uniquely qualified, so this project was steered to them.”
It’s not just Powers claiming that rooftop and parking lot solar would be a cheaper way to produce more clean power faster than building power lines to remote desert and rural areas. Google’s Project Sunroof estimates that 14,700 MW of power could be generated in San Diego County from rooftop solar alone, not even counting parking lot solar. That’s over seven times more than would be transmitted over those power lines to remote areas that SDG&E wants to build.
The County’s report, inexplicably, claims that available rooftop solar space is nearly filled up – a contention Powers finds ludicrous. “When you look around, does it look like every spot that can use a solar panel has been used?” he asks. “The concept of developing a coherent strategy to decarbonize is a good one, but if you’re using obviously bad info to sidetrack rooftop solar because you don’t like it and it won’t produce a basis for building new transmission lines, then we’re interested in that and ant to get it right.”
He is also troubled that the County has been dismissive of concerns raised by the POCF, failing to respond to major concerns raised and arguing the document is merely conceptual. “We all know that the first document is the seminal document that defines the game,” Powers says. “We’ve been seriously engaged in review, commenting on this document for almost a year and we have not even received a written response from them on what we see as gross errors.”
Ratepayers should also be concerned about the ploy of pushing new powerline projects instead of rooftop or parking lot solar, since SDG&E is using the cost of those new transmission lines as one of its reasons given to justified hefty proposed rate hikes over the next four years. “This has finally become an issue of concern at the statewide political level – all the rate hikes and people not being able to pay their bills,” says Power, referencing a doubling of natural gas prices in January, which have only partially come down. “People are getting the perception that utilities are just calling the shots” in telling the CPUC to authorize yet more power lines. “There seems to be nobody watching the house,” he says of the state regulatory body.
Industrial scale wind and solar projects don’t just cost more and take longer to construct than rooftop or parking lot solar. They can also have staggeringly negative impacts on the environment. These are just some of the issues that ECM has reported on related to large wind and solar projects in San Diego’s East County as well as in Ocotillo, just over the county line in Imperial County:
- Wind turbines bursting into flames, causing fires – and they’re located in high wildfire danger areas. Each turbine contains over 1,000 gallons of flammable lubricating oil. (Photos, right: Wind turbine fires in Campo on multiple occasions)
- Wind turbines collapsing, and others hurling off blades weighing as much as 11 tons; one fell onto a public trail.
- The Dept. of the Interior authorizing the taking or iincidental deaths of bighorn sheep.
- Eagles, hawks and other raptors being killed fling into blades. Certain types of desert solar arrays also kill migratory birds and water fowl.
- Destroying up to 12,000 acres by scraping off desert topsoil, blowing up massive boulder-filled valleys, and covering up wetlands
- Creating Dust Bowl Era sized dust storms, exacerbating asthma and other respiratory problems
- Stray voltage 1,000 times higher than normal coming up into homes near a wind farm, with a cancer cluster documented in a tribal community exposed to this, per a Cal State San Marcos study.
- Chemicals used for dust suppression, which are flammable, washed onto people’s front yards in Ocotillo during storms, posing fire dangers when this dried out.
- Hydraulic fluid from wind turbines leaking into soil and potentially into groundwater.
- Flashing red lights on wind turbines disrupting sleep for residents
- Noise and infrasound from wind turbines linked to sleep disruption and other health concerns.
- Glare from giant solar fields, plus wind turbines 500 feet tall – taller than skyscrapers downtown – destroying rural character
Rooftop and parking lot solar have none of those downsides, other than perhaps glare. So why aren’t public officials getting the message?
“The reason is fundamentally the private monopoly, investor-owned utility business model is profit-motivated by driving steel into the ground. That hasn’t,” Powers says. Now, utilities to “use climate change and climate action as drivers for a huge new era of building stuff,” coupled with a marketing program to convince decision makers, including through strength of the utility industry’s wallet, that “the only way we’ll get to decarbonize fast is to build solar and wind farms in remote areas.”
But now, there’s trouble in paradise from the utilities’ standpoint, he suggests. “People start rising up, seeing problems with shoehorning of these projects,” Powers says. That’s in part because now that some projects have been built locally, residents are suffering the downsides. “Nobody can imagine the scale of these projects until they see it,” Powers says. Then people realize this is neither a fast model, nor a benign one n terms of negative impacts on communities.
Another problem politically is that labor unions support SDG&E’s plan to build power lines. “The biggest union working in this area is IBEW 465 (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers). SDG&E is a union shop and the union has a collective bargaining agreement. There is a loyalty clause – they have to support what the union wants to do,” and the union supports what SDG&E wants to build. Some unions are even fighting against rooftop solar, says Powers, who is not anti-union, but is concerned about politicians beholden to unions for campaign contributions being unwilling to stand up against union positions on this issue.
There is now a prevailing wage requirement for solar installers, says Powers, so “prevailing wages in San Diego have been achieved.” But unions continue to stand with utility interests, not the solar industry’s or ratepayers’ interests, according to Powers.
Another constituency of Democrats, who control California’s government, is environmentalists. Yet political leaders have failed to acknowledge that massive wind and solar projects have environmental costs that have not been calculated into the equation – such as getting rid of carbon sequestration when paving over wetlands to build such facilities, or importing wind turbines made overseas in coal-fired factories, or the massive fossil fuel consumption of shipping such items long distances.
Locally, community planning groups are banding together to send letters to County Supervisors opposing the Regional Decarbonization Plan. To date, planning groups in Jamul-Dulzura, Campo-Lake Morena, Descanso, Jacumba, and Borrego Springs have come out against the plan, with more likely to follow suit.
Billie Jo Jannen, Chair of the Campo-Lake Morena Community Planning Group, sent a blistering letter to Supervisors urging them to “stop excluding regular people from having anything to say in the drafting of this framework. Your entire list of stakeholders are people who make money or not, based on how it is written and implemented. We are not cattle to be herded and managed by the wealthy and elite for the sake of Sempra’s bottom line or some politician’s reelection bid. Our lives will be forever impacted by what is decided as a result of this process and we deserve to have our voices heard. We are, in fact, the ultimate stakeholders.”
How to speak out
- You can submit comments online up until March 31 on the Regional Decarbonization Framework webpage by registering here: https://engage.sandiegocounty.gov/rdf.
- The County will hold a hearing on its Regional Decarbonization Framework on April 5. The agenda will be posted three days before the hearing at https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/content/sdc/cob/bosa.html. If you can’t attend in person, you and watch remotely and sign up to submit either written comments or speak from a remote location.
- Contact your Supervisors via this page: https://www.sandiegocounty.gov/general/bos.html.
Powers urges people in all Supervisors’ districts to reach out to their Supervisors, attend the April 5 meeting, and also submit comments by March 31 on the RDF site. Change is more likely to happen, he concludes, “Tte more people stand up and say `No, we want this to represent reality and not some predetermined outcome.”
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