An analysis on the impacts of energy policies and projects on the future of East County
By Jessica Richmond and Miriam Raftery
May 29, 2014 (San Diego’s East County) – A growing number of East County residents, fire chiefs, environmentalists and elected officials are voicing alarm over the proposed large-scale destruction of natural and scenic resources for numerous industrial-scale “renewable” wind and solar energy projects and related powerlines, substations and more. A map reveals that East County is targeted for a disproportionate share of these projects, pushed forward by energy companies and politicians who contend such development is needed to disrupt disastrous effects of global warming and fill the regional energy gap left by closing San Onofre nuclear generation stations.
But opponents say these projects are not green or sustainable, instead setting up our region for an ecological disaster in the making. They raise some crucial questions:
How did San Diego’s East County come to be targeted for fast-tracking by federal, state and county governments to facilitate construction of so many massive-scale solar and wind projects and related transmission lines in rural, mountain and desert areas instead of urban locations where demand for power is highest?
Why isn’t preference given to incentivize less destructive renewable options, such as rooftop and parking lot solar or small-scale wind turbines for use by residents, schools, municipal governments and businesses?
The National Energy Policy Act was enacted in 2005 to “establish right-of-way corridors on federal lands for electricity transmission and distribution facilities, and oil, gas, and hydrogen pipelines.” Initially the push for energy corridors centered around creating more opportunities for oil, coal and gas during the Bush-Cheney administration – perhaps not surprising given the oil executive backgrounds of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Though the concept of energy corridors to broaden the transmission grid started during the Bush presidency, that process was also approved by the Obama administration, which saw the concept as a way to expand renewable energy resources and move American toward a more sustainable future. President Barack Obama sought to create massive wind and solar generating facilities rich in the promise of natural clean energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reverse the devastating trajectory of climate change (See recent NASA evidence) and reduce foreign oil dependence. Thus the Obama administration began handing off vast tracts of public lands for leasing of massive “green” energy projects. The 11 contiguous states that were impacted by this push towards clean energy are Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is committed to the expansion of the Electric Transmission Facilities and Energy Corridors. The BLM cites this quote from President Obama, “We know the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century” as the magical key to unlocking the future ripe with abundant natural energy resources.
As part of this push, a new fast-tracking process was approved that made it easier for energy companies to win approval of projects on government-owned lands, sharply restricting the ability of citizens opposed to such projects.
Critics say the process has unfairly deprived the people of a voice, as ECM has previously reported. For example, opponents of a wind facility in Ocotillo, California had only 30 days to submit comments on a 5,000 page draft Environmental Impact Statement. One tribal attorney was handed hundreds of pages of proposed changes to the same project just one hour before a hearing, where her request for postponement to evaluate the changes was denied. The project is on land used as a burial ground by tribes for 10,000 and that is supposed to have cultural resources protected by state and federal laws. How is that serving the interest of the public or the Native American tribes whose rights our government is supposed to protect?
What is the true cost to our individual states, our counties, and our homes from such rampant industrialization of once protected areas?
In 2009 the environmental protection group Wilderness Society filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of the Interior, due to the negative effects from a system of corridors for pipelines and power lines that were slated to have been built. The lawsuit was filed because of the impacts that would have resulted from the construction of such power lines on wildlife habitats, National Parks, National Wildlife Refugees, and threats to destroy once protected natural habitats for endangered species. The Wilderness Society and the federal government were able to negotiate an amicable settlement outside of court in mid-2012, which resulted in a reevaluation of the most sensitive areas of natural habitat that overlay the right-of-way corridors, in conjunction with a memorandum on the government’s agreement to decrease the amount of right-of-way corridors http://wilderness.org/sites/default/files/fct-wwec-corridors-settlement-factsheet_27june2012.pdf.
However, the Wilderness Society still maintains that the energy corridors cover over 6,000 miles and approximately 3 million acres—many of them right here in San Diego’s East County.
Critics contend that the federal government is choosing to encourage the desecration of wilderness preserves and other formerly protected public lands, turning a blind eye to harm in order to fuel the desire for more renewable energy.
The scale of destruction is monumental. The Bureau of Land Management alone has touted 249 million acres of public land for “renewable” energy development, including 20 million acres for solar and another 20 million for wind, 249 million for geothermal and additional lands for biomass. Is scraping bare millions of acres of foliage that sequestered carbon really green? What are the impacts on wildlife from so much loss of habitat? Those figures are only for the BLM; these estimates don’t even include additional energy projects proposed in National Forests and military lands, nor state , local and private properties being converted to industrial-scale “green” energy at a rampant rate.
This map provides visuals on the cumulative impacts of wind energy facilities alone across the United States.
Massive wind and solar projects are having devastating tolls on wildlife. Ivanpah, the world’s largest concentrated solar facility recently opened in the Mojave Desert—and it’s burning birds alive. An article in the Wall Street Journal called Ivanpah “the $2.2 billion bird-scorching project.” A wind facility in Altamont, California has killed tens of thousands of birds of prey, including hundreds of endangered eagles. A California Department of Fish and Game 2012 inventory now lists only 141 incidents of nesting pairs of golden eagles or golden eagle foraging areas left in the entire state. Just one of those is in San Diego’s East County—and it lies in the path of a recently approved wind facility.
At the state level, California has been leading the way in the push to develop energy from natural sources targeted as clean and green, such as wind farms and solar projects. To push even harder for clean energy legislation, in early April 2011, Governor Jerry Brown signed SBX1 2 into law, which mandates that California soon meet one third of its energy consumption through renewable resources . To some, this may sound like a welcome window opening, just as the door closed on the nuclear energy source of the San Onofre power plant in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. However, this law ties the state of California to the energy industry by mandating that by the year 2020, utilities must provide at least 30% of energy from clean renewable energy sources.
The next question we have to ask ourselves is, how will this energy be produced and will it create more jobs? Governor Brown claimed in his Clean Energy Plan, that clean renewable energy will “produce half a million new jobs in the next decade.” But will that estimate stand up? Construction jobs at the Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, for example, came largely from out-of-state workers brought in for temporary work. Only a handful of permanent jobs were created.
Bill Miller, of Anshutz Corporation proposed an answer for California’s energy needs. Lately, Mr. Miller has been busy in the coal-powered state of Wyoming negotiating talks to build a wind farm to sell cheap clean energy to Californians. This new wind farm is projected to have the capacity to power a new 750-mile transmission line that would connect directly to the California grid, reported the Los Angeles Times. If we allow other states to produce power for us here in California, how will this help our state to become more self-sufficient? How will the construction of wind projects in Wyoming help create more jobs in California?
California’s well-intentioned laws have forced utility companies such as Sempra Energy to invest in purchasing renewable power. The problem, from the point of view of residents impacted by large-scale energy projects, however, is that state law provides zero incentive for utility giants to buy power from the least-destructive sources such as residential or commercial rooftop solar, instead incentivizing the most profitable options for utilities: big wind and solar projects in remote locations, also requiring construction of more and more high voltage lines and substations with seemingly no regard for the environmental consequences or impacts on communities.
The BLM’s list of active renewable energy projects includes a disproportionate amount located in California, a state once noted for its environmental stewardship but where policies have since shifted to favor energy development over environmental protections. Out of the 14 industrial-scale total solar energy projects in the pipeline, 8 of them are located in California; that’s over 50%. Four projects have been suspended or placed on hold, such as Hidden Hills Solar, in Inyo, California and Clark, Nevada http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy/renewable_energy/active_renewable_projects.html.
The BLM also lists six different wind energy projects currently being processed. Surprisingly, four of those projects are again, located in California. While the Tule Wind project on BLM land in San Diego’s McCain Valley (photo, left), as well as the Alta East Kern project in Kern have been “approved”, the Granite Mountain Wind, in San Bernardino, was classified as “withdrawn by applicant” But why has California been the target for so many wind energy projects if our wind speeds tend to be lower than in other states?
San Diego’s East County was one of the first energy corridors designated to have big “renewable” projects built under the new fast-track process, along with Imperial Valley. The projects, which drew widespread protests from residents, included Sunrise Powerlink, several big substations, Ocotillo Wind, and now more wind and industrial solar facilities proposed, planned or approved.
Local groups sued to try to block Powerlink from being built through Cleveland National Forest (CNF), but failed, though other action succeeded forced the project to avoid Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Supervisor Dianne Jacob called Sunrise Powerlink “the most destructive project I’ve ever seen.” ECM documented the damage the 117-mile line did through East County including Cleveland National Forest. Project approval ignored fire dangers that the project Environmental Impact Report (EIR) conceded are severe and can’t be mitigated-- in an area that’s twice had the worst wildfires in state history. Approvals also ignored the cumulative impacts of loss of lands and habitat due to wildfires and other factors, as ECM documented and photographed in an award-winning investigation.
A key player in the local projects was David Hayes, ex-lobbyist for Sempra Energy and SDG&E. Hayes was appointed by Obama as the Interior Department second in command, despite Obama’s campaign pledge not to appoint lobbyists in his administration. It is widely believed that Hayes pushed Powerlink and other big energy projects through despite many compelling objections, as ECM reported. There were large protests locally against the project, and even a folk song from the anti-Powerlink movement imploring CNF Supervisor William Metz to refuse to sign final approval. However, Metz signed it, opening the door for industrialization of the backcountry through a barrage of future energy projects all seeking to hook up to the new Powerlink. One of these, the Eco-Substation, used three-times as much water as estimated—a whopping 90 million gallons amid a drought in an area dependent on groundwater. The project also blighted mountain views in rural Jacumba.
At the grand opening of a substation in Alpine, where a video glorified SDG&E workers blowing up the top of a mountain to construct the project, both Governor Jerry Brown and ex-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up to celebrate-- much to the horror of local residents protesting outside, as we reported. Governor Brown’s pledge to “crush the opposition” (as concerns of residents, tribal and enviornmentalists were ignored) moved ECM to publish a rare editorial seeking to educate the Governor on the people he sought to “crush.”
Ocotillo’s wind project was one of the first to be “fast-tracked” by the federal government in an energy corridor. The deck was stacked so that nobody could stop it, no matter how compelling the arguments provided. In addition, people were given unreasonably and impossibly short time frames to respond—and even when they did, regulators and decision makers ignored their pleas.
The consequences in Ocotillo have been tragic. The project contributed to Dust Bowl scale storms , mowing down century-old ocotillos and massive grading on 12,000 acres of public lands, also flooding the town of Ocotillo with white, flammable chemicals used (not effectively) for dust suppression, as we reported at the time.
The Native American Heritage Commission ruled that the BLM erred in approving desecration of “protected” Indian burial sites ; after the project was built, the NAHC found in favor of requests by the Viejas and Quechan tribes and ruled the Ocotillo project site a sacred site, as we reported. Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico and the NAHC Chair have both voiced the opinion that the project should be torn down. The NAHC asked California Attorney Kamala Harris to allow legal action against the federal government, but Harris declined, claiming the NAHC lacked authority to sue over a project on federal lands (a point legal experts have disputed.) Harris further recused herself from representing the NAHC in the Ocotillo matter, citing a n unnamed conflict of interest.
The state mandate for 33% of power from renewables by 2020 has also put pressure on counties--and in our county there’s added pressure from big energy companies such as Soitec, that built a solar manufacturing facility here in San Diego. After getting a letter from Soitec asking them to fast track big energy projects in rural East County, San Diego County Supervisors did just that. Only Supervisor Dianne Jacob (who represents East County) voted no; the other four voted yes.
Supervisors gutted Boulevard’s community plan that residents had spent over a decade working to have approved, paving the way for massive industrial solar and wind projects all over our backcountry that would previously not have been allowed in areas zoned as rural. As we have documented, this left residents feeling betrayed , gearing up to do battle against a seemingly endless onslaught of more and more big projects that the county in its peculiar logic has chosen not to deem industrial despite the mammoth scale. Supervisors also approved a county wind ordinance that makes it easier for wind developers to win approval for projects that propose to build hundreds of wind turbines, each over 500 feet tall – the height of 50 story buildings—with blade spans the length of football fields in rural and scenic areas.
But what have our state and local representatives done to address the environmental issues associated with such BLM endorsed projects as industrial wind farms in Ocotillo? As ECM reported earlier in 2013, Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility is a poster child for negative impacts these supposed ‘green renewable energy’ producers have on the environment.
Residents are still plagued by white chemical runoff during the rainy seasons (as reported in ECM in a 2012 article) and are fearful about potential contamination to their aquifer, the town’s only water supply, along with the loss of wildlife and plant life, noise and infrasound that some claim disrupt sleep. The project also hurled off a multi-ton blade onto a public trail, highlighting safety concerns and raising the question of why turbine and blade maker Siemens with a history of paying large fines for bribing public officials had been allowed to bid on a potentially hazardous project on public lands, as we reported in our award-winning coverage.
The only other wind project built so far in our region, the Kumeyaay wind facility on the Campo Indian reservation, has been similarly trouble-prone. That project had an explosion in 2009 that resulted in the entire facility being knocked off line for months, necessitating replacement of all 75 blades and all 25 turbines. Rusted turbine parts riddled the grounds for years during litigation.
Then in December 2013, another turbine exploded at the facility, sparking a brush fire that threatened a nearby home (photo, right) and raising questions over manufacturer Gamesa’s troubling record of fires at other wind facilities. In addition, stray voltage 1,000 times higher than normal has been measured inside neighboring homes, where residents fear cancer cases and other health problems could be caused by the electrical currents pulsing into their homes—yet nothing has been done to correct the problem.
Next up, Soitec wants to build massive solar projects on wetlands and meadows in rural Boulevard, with some 8,000 solar modules each 30 feet tall by 60 feet wide along scenic-designated rural highways very close to homes. The project environmental consultant, Dudek, hired by the developer has a record of severely underestimating water use at other projects, notably SDG&E’s Eco substation and Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo wind facility. Soitec’s draft EIR appears to omit large-water use items including concrete-making and rock-crushing operations planned onsite.
Moreover a hydrology expert at San Diego State University has warned that Soitec’s projects could drain groundwater supplies beyond the point of replenishment from rainfall, potentially leading to ecological collapse, as we reported. The Anza Borrego Foundation and Cleveland National Forest Foundation have also voiced opposition to the project. They cite fears of negative impacts on water supplies in Anza Borrego Desert State Park, California’s largest state park, and on Cleveland National Forest.
Besides environmental costs, there are also hidden monetary costs to wind and solar. By some estimates, transmission and other hidden costs increase the price of wind energy by a factor of 1.5 to 2.
Moreover, energy companies are now touting gas-fired peaker power plants as backup for when the wind doesn’t blow—which in the case of Ocotillo, producing at about 16% capacity factor in its first 11 months (less than half what was promised by the developer to win federal subsidies), is most of the time, as ECM reported in an award-winning article titled Was it fraud? International wind expert Nicolas Boccard and others have suggested the developer defrauded taxpayers to pocket lucrative subsidies and that the U.S. government should have grounds to file action under the False Claims Act.
Locally, gas power plants proposed include the controversial Quail Brush facility near Mission Trails Regional Park and the Pio Pico plant in Otay Mesa.
So how much fossil fuel do these wind projects really save? Consider that turbines may be built in coal-fired factories, often overseas, then shipped long distances, and the “savings” appears slimmer still.
So what are some more positive alternatives for clean renewable energy resources?
We needn’t look any further then to the beautiful rays of California sunshine for help in producing answers to our energy concerns. Solar panels on roofs and parking lots can provide Californians with a more environmentally friendly way to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, as well as potential to provide consumers with the opportunity to recoup some money for installation, and to receive rebates for excess power pumped back to the grid.
A solid step in the right direction of personal responsibility can be seen on the official Upgrade California website. San Diego County lists options for rebates and incentives by zip code, such as solar panels by Photovoltaic Systems in investor-owned utility territories (PG&E, SCE, SDG&E) to receive a rebate of $0.35 per Watt for PG&E and SDG&E, and $0.65 per Watt for SCE's customers.
But even if every consumer in California added solar to their rooftops, there is still no provision in the law to halt the destruction of our wild and scenic places, or preserve the character of our rural communities. What’s missing from the equation is a mechanism to halt development of massive scale energy projects on formerly pristine lands if enough energy is produced from more benign sources such as rooftop solar. Nor is there any incentive for utility or energy companies to buy power produced on rooftops, or other smaller scale green power produced closer to where energy is consumed in urban areas.
Why don’t we provide the biggest incentives to utilities to buy power from the least environmentally destructive projects? Imagine if Sempra could get hefty tax credits for encouraging shopping malls, colleges and large companies to put solar shade structures on parking lots or photovoltaic panels on their roofs?
If the federal government, in conjunction with the California Legislature, were to offer higher incentives and tax credits for individual solar projects, that could be used by both corporations and small businesses, we could potentially see a rise in environmentally sound alternatives for reaching the 30% renewable mandate by 2020.
Also worth noting: use of fossil fuels that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced through means other than power production. Improved mass transit, energy efficient buildings and conservation are all examples of ways that California and our nation could move forward with slowing climate change as alternatives to the broad-scale destruction of wild lands and habitat now occurring with industrial wind and solar facilities in our region and beyond.
Without a reversal in policy course, many experts and residents fear that East County’s backcountry and wilderness areas—and potentially countless other places -- appear headed on a course toward broad-scale ecological disaster.