County planners approved despite serious environmental and financial issues; rural group vows to sue if approved
By Miriam Raftery
January 19, 2015 (Boulevard) – Rural planning group chairs and environmentalists are blasting county planners for approving Soitec Solar’s controversial industrial scale solar projects. Planners largely ignored evidence that the projects could deplete groundwater supplies, threaten wildlife and create fire hazards—as well as Soitec’s precarious financial position.
Next up, San Diego Supervisors will hold a hearing on the project February 4th. At least one citizens’ group, Backcountry Against Dumps (BAD) has promised to file a lawsuit against the County if Supervisors approve the projects, which would cover 1500 acres with approximately 8,000 massive solar trackers, each 30 feet high.
Boulevard’s Planning Group voted unanimously to oppose the projects (with two planners recusing themselves because they live near the sites.) About 50 to 75 residents packed the Boulevard fire station where the meeting was held; all were opposed to this radical transformation of their community, meadows, wetlands and scenic areas into industrial energy facilities.
Donna Tisdale, Chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, voiced alarm over last-minute changes to the project proposal after the Environmental Impact Repot was completed. Those changes include 160 battery modules each the size of a large metal ocean-shipping container—additions that could “exponentially increase the risk of fire,” Tisdale wrote in comments submitted to the County. She contends that such major additions violate the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and that the environmental review process should be reopened as a result.
In neighboring Jacumba, Jacumba Sponsor Group Howard Cook has also raised serious concerns. “The question is, why is the county even considering the changes and environmental damage this challenged foreign company will incur?” he asks in a letter sent to Supervisors. “This huge project…will industrialize an area of rural ranches, located in an area with significant wildlife with noted scenic beauty and partially along an Interstate highway (8) with a scenic designation.” Glare for motorists and residents from a sea of glass panels is another concern.
But the gravest worry is water. Both Tisdale and Cook claim the EIR vastly underestimates the project’s water use. They have good reason for concern, since the ECO substation project just completed by SDG&E used three times more groundwater than estimated – nearly a million gallons. Water is precious in an area dependent on groundwater, particularly during drought conditions. But Soitec relied on the same consultants, Dudek, that have consistently underestimated water usage at other projects in the region.
Tisdale notes that residents in this area rely solely on groundwater and have no access to California water projects, reservoirs, or other water sources. “Therefore the developers and San Diego County are putting the lives, livelihoods and homes of Eastern San Diego County residents as well as its largely tourist-oriented businesses in jeopardy,” she concludes.
San Diego State University hydrology expert Victor Ponce studied the project and concluded it could destabilize the ecosystem by depleting groundwater resources beyond what would likely be replenished through rainfall.
As we previously reported, Ponce concluded, “No development, no matter how lofty its aim, should place at risk existing natural ecosystems. Other considerations notwithstanding, the Boulevard Soitec projects must resort to imported water to satisfy their needs.”
Shockingly, citizens at the Boulevard Planning Committee meeting were told by county officials that they will have no recourse or monetary award if actual water use exceeds the EIR estimates. Tisdale wants the County to deny the project, or restart the entire EIR process.
Cook and Tisdale both contend that the EIR severely underestimated the amount of water that will be used. The EiR fails to include water estimates for road building or for construction foundations to hold the massive array of batteries, or for washing the completed solar trackers. They also question the amount of water estimated for concrete, suggesting it could be several times higher than estimated.
Objections have also come from the Nature Conservancy, California Fish and Wildlife Service, Anza Borrego Desert Park Foundation and Mark Jorgenson, former superintendent of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Their concerns include fragmenting habitat for endangered Peninsular desert bighorn sheep and golden eagles, among other species that stand to be negatively impacted by the projects. Some environmentalists also voice fears over depletion of water supplies for wildlife, including marshes that are part of the Pacific flyway for migratory birds and water seeps that bighorn sheep rely upon for survival.
Another concern is the financial stability of Soitec, which recently had its stock plunge 57 percent, leading a Reuters analyst to recommend that investors avoid Soitec stock “like poison.”
Once a poster child for renewable energy and recipient of a lucrative federal grant, French-based Soitec recently lost a lucrative solar contractd with Tenaska in Imperial Valley, Voice of San Diego reported. Most recently, Soitec announced lay-off of 100 local workers at its Rancho Bernardo-based factory, Recharge News reports. The company's stock has plummeted to just a quarter of last year's high, to $1.18 as of January 8, down from $4.35.
Greentech Media reports Soitec’s concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) factory is “on its last legs” due to financial losses and collapse of the CPV market due to competition from China and other technologies.
Moreover, SDG&E spokesperson Jennifer Ramp recently revealed, “SDG&E does not have any contracts with Soitec,” Greentech Media indicated. Ramp said Soitec assigned contracts to third-party developers and thus SDG&E no longer has a direct business relationship with Soitec, after previously working “very hard to bring Soitec to San Diego with a focus on helping them be successful.”
Greentech’s article concludes, “The signs are clear – this deal is toast and the factory is in trouble”
Despite such dire warnings, County planners approved the Soitec projects anyhow – essentially ignoring the potentially dire risks and negative impacts to residents, wildlife and the environment.
San Diego Supervisors no doubt feel the pressure from Sacramento to comply with renewable energy mandates. But renewable energy could be met by producing power where it is used most – in urban areas, with solar on rooftops and parking lots, to name just two reasonable alternatives.
But backcountry leaders contend that putting the lives, water supply and safety of East County residents at risk, along with the very existence of some of our region’s most iconic wildlife species, would be irresponsible.
If the fears voiced by rural advocates, wildlife experts and SDSU’s hydrology expert prove true, will Soitec be around to accept liability for the devastation?
For those who believe East County residents’ lives and safety don’t matter, consider this: if rural residents’ lawsuit is successful, all County taxpayers could wind up footing the bill for damages resulting from approval of a deeply flawed project by County Supervisors.
Additional for this story:
All County records on the Soitec project can be accessed here: