Why doesn’t San Diego County end revolving door situation?
Photo: Soitec's Newberry Springs project, which promised minimal enviornmental impacts, graded all vegetation on the site.
By Miriam Raftery
March 1, 2014 (San Diego’s East County)—Developers frequently put “spin” on project descriptions to emphasize benefits rather than negative impacts. But certain statements by Soitec representatives regarding its proposed solar projects in Boulevard and a recent project in the desert fall into the “Pinnochio” category. In fact Soitec representatives misrepresented glare issues and the amount of land that is disturbed by their projects.
During a Soitec community meeting at the Manzanita Diner last month, ECM’s editor asked Soitec media and communications advisor Karen Hutchens specifically about a moratorium on solar projects approved by San Bernadino County Supervisors amid concerns about glare in Newberry Springs, where Soitec built a project very similar to its proposed Boulevard sites. Hutchens responded, “That had nothing to do with our project. The moratorium was passed before our project was even built.”
But Robert Berkman, head of a citizens group in Newberry Springs called CEQA-NOW, told ECM that statement was a bald-faced lie. “The moratorium came out because of the Soitec project—after it was built,” he said, adding that citizens invited Supervisors to visit the site. Supervisors said, “’`Good grief, what has happened here? ‘ “ Berkman stated. “The moratorium occurred because we were able to bring them out and say `This is an example of solar done wrong.’”
Soitec's Hutchens concedes that she erred in her statement on the timing of the moratorium, and agrees it was imposed after Soitec's project was built, but says Soitec's project was not the reason for the moratorium. ECM is seeking clarification from San Bernardino County's Land Services Department.
That's not the only disputed statement by Soitec.
Deceptions on grading sites, protecting plants and wildlife
At Boulevard’s planning group meeting and in other discussions with the public and press, Soitec has repeatedly promised it would make efforts to minimize environmental impacts and has stated that it would not scrape bare vast tracts for its projects. The company brochure makes simlar claims including "no grading of water required" and "minimal impact on vegetation and wildlife."
But the Newberry Springs project, which has the same sized Soitec solar modules proposed for Boulevard, proves otherwise, as numerous photos sent by CEQA-NOW shows. (photos, top left and right, for example).
"These claims are demonstrated as false when based on their estimated grading and water use and other significant impacts for Rugged Solar, Tierra Del Sol Solar, LanWest and LanEast, removal of agriculture preserve, and through other information included in the DPEIR, and as demonstrated by Soitec's other projects," Boulevard Planning Group Chair Donna Tisdale says of Soitec's claims regarding no grading and minimal environmental impacts at its Boulevard sites. "The false claims, regarding no grading and minimal impact on vegetation and wildlife, are also contradicted by Soitec's own public relations Fact Sheets, and other documents, with evidence of clear grading, removal of virtually all vegetation, and disturbance of natural soil / binders at their following existing sites," she added. (See document links below.)
- Soitec's 1.37MW Questa New Mexico facility Fact Sheet (173 Concentrix 18' x 21' CPV dual trackers): claims of zero water gallons per year for power production http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Questa_factsheet_en.pdf
- Soitec's 1.68 MW Newberry Solar 1 site in Newberry Springs,CA (60 CX-S530 CPV systems) Newberry Springs ID Card: http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Newberry_ID_card.pdf
- Soitec's Newberry Springs PR video (see video starting at 2:31 minutes for evidence of clear grading at Newberry site and at 3:30 where the video fades out just as the main glare from the CPV panels would show up):http://www.soitec.com/videos/soitec-newberry-springs/
- Soitec's Hazelemer 500kV site Durban South Africa Fact Sheet (32 CX-S42 systems): http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Hazelmere_factsheet_en.pdf
- Soitec's Wadi El Natrun Egypt 40kW Fact Sheet (5 Soitec CX-P6 systems) http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Wadi_El_Natrun_factsheet_en.pdf
- Soitec's Touwsrivier Western Cape South Africa 82kW (demonstration project) Fact Sheet (Soitec CX-P6): http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Touwsrivier_factsheet_en.pdf
- Soitec's 680kW Puertollano, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain CPV plant Fact Sheet (Soitec CX-P6): http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Puertollano_factsheet_en.pdf
- Soitec's 630kW Rains, Var , France Fact Sheet (80 32m2 CPV Systems): http://www.soitec.com/pdf/sites/Soitec_Rians_factsheet_en.pdf
These and other projects are documented in the Soitec CPV Installation document dated February 2014, where all but 2 of the 12 projects shown are clear graded: http://www.soitec.com/pdf/Soitec_CPV_Installations_V10.0.pdf
Newberry Springs residences complain of major changes not disclosed, mitigation not enforced
Residents contend that Soitec pulled a bait-and-switch tactic in Newberry Springs after acquiring the project site from another company that had proposed panels only about seven feet tall. The company assured community members that environmental impacts would be minimal. Residents report they were shocked to see the entire site bladed, every piece of vegetation removed along with the crust of desert soil, and modules 27 feet high erected which blocked views of the Newbery Mountains Wilderness area.
Those facts are detailed in a letter sent February 28, 2014 by CEAQ-NOW to Tom Hudson, director of San Bernadino County’s Land Use Services Department. The letter further alleges that many if not all proposed mitigations “have somehow disappeared” including a living fence to screen visual impacts, soil stabilization to reduce blowing sand, and road improvements.
The letter further asserts that Soitec’s permitting manager, Patrick Brown, stated that the company had not retained records including signed applications for any amended conditions of approval, nor signed approvals for amended conditions of approval – such as the massive change in height.
Hutchens contends that "Soitec is in full compliance with County requirements" and objects to the bait and switch characterization. "That's not the case. It was fully approved by the County and all of the community was public noticed," she states.
Soitec later sent a statement reading, "Soitec is making efforts to minimize the environmental impacts of its projects as required by the California Environmental Quality Act and as discussed in the Draft PEIR. The brochure cited in the article is intended for a world-wide audience, subject to local permitting and development requirements. Here, the County of San Diego’s CEQA document is the authoritative document about the Boulevard projects, not the brochure, and Soitec has never made any representation to the contrary."
She said the company has "no plans to build Phase II" in Newberry Springs.
County planner who worked on Soitec projects takes job with Soitec
If the name Patrick Brown sounds familiar to local San Diego County residents, it’s because Brown was the San Diego County Department of Planning and Development’s Project Manager involved with Soitec projects before switching jobs to work for Soitec, Berkman observed. He added wryly, "That's not a confidence builder from our point.”
Interestingly, Soitec's representative Hutchens contacted ECM after this story ran and insisted that Brown never had anything to do with Soitec projects and in fact, left the County before Soitec's projects were even in the pipeline.
But documents provided by Donna Tisdale prove that Hutchens' once again misrepresented the facts.
"Attached are several documents that confirm Patrick Brown was working Soitec projects before his last day of County employment on March 1, 2012," Tisdale wrote in an email March 5 to ECM.
Specifically, Tisdale elaborated, "Brown signed the County's pre-application letter summary letter for Soitec's Rugged Solar dated 8-25-11. Brown is listed as in attendance (as county planner) at the 10-25-11 County's pre-application scoping meeting on LanWest/East Rugged Solar. Several e-mails between myself and Patrick (Jan-Feb 2012) are cut and pasted into another attached document that further document that he was working on Soitec projects prior to leaving the County to go straight to work for Soitec."
When ECM contacted Hutchens regarding Tisdale's documentation, Hutchens admitted that Brown was involved with projects in the early phases. "Patrick Brown did work on the pre-applications for Soitec, but as I shared with you, he left prior to the formal application being filed so he did not work on the actual applications," she stasted. "LanWest was submitted to the County while he was there, but it was not assigned to him."
This is far from the first time that San Diego County has faced criticism over its revolving door policies. Other official bodies such as Congress impose moratoriums or a year or more before a county official can go to work for a company they oversaw, or vice versa. Back in 2006, this writer exposed in a story published at RawStory that a former Blackwater attorney, Lori Spar, went to work soon after leaving the firm to become an environmental planner with the County overseeing the Blackwater paramilitary training camp project proposed in Potrero. That report won a prize from San Diego Press Club. The County confirmed that it has no time limits to prevent such revolving door situations, creating fertile grounds for conflicts of interests.
Concerns over Soitec consultants' water estimates
This is also not the first time that serious concerns have been raised over Soitec estimates of its projects’ impacts. The company’s environmental consulting firm, Dudek, has a troubled track record of severely underestimating water usage at various projects, notably the Eco-Substation in Boulevard that used three times more water than Dudek estimated, as ECM has reported.
Local planners have exposed that Dudek’s estimated water use in the Soitec solar draft Environmental Impact Report for its four proposed Boulevard industrial solar projects (including site shown in photo, right) omitted concrete making operations and rock-crushing planned onsite, both very water intensive uses, among other items omitted.
An SDSU hydrologist has said even the levels Soitec estimates could destroy the region's ecosystem, draining groundwater resources beyond the level that can be replenished, a joint investigation by ECM and Eco Report revealed. Cleveland National Forest Foundation and Anza Borrego Foundation have joined the fight against Soitec's projects, citing irreversible harm the projects could pose to the national forest and California's largest state park.
Who is Soitec?
Soitec opened a solar manufacturing facility in San Diego in December 2012 after receiving a $25 million grant from the U. S. Department of Energy to develop its manufacturing base here. The French-based company known for developing its flagship material, SOI (Silicon-on-Insulator.) Jean-Michel Lamure and André-Jacques Auberton-Hervé founded the company in 1992, collaborating on developing and commercializing their Smart Cut™ “atomic scalpel” technology. Soitec focuses on five industries: computing, telecommunications, automotive electronics, lighting, and solar energy.
Initially, Soitec’s main focus was in the electronics industry. However, several years ago, Soitec launched into the solar energy industry. Currently, the company owns solar and wind energy facilities in France, the United States, Germany, Italy, Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan.
In 2011, Soitec Solar Development, LLC, received the approval of five of its power purchase agreements with San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). These five projects represent a combined capacity of 155megawatts (MW) of solar energy with electricity generated at solar power plant sites in San Diego County.
Lessons from a troubled track record
While Supervisors have been supportive of Soitec efforts to create manufacturing jobs locally, the company’s efforts to deceive planners, public officials and residents about the real impacts of its first proposed projects in San Diego’s East County—and in Newberry Springs-- could give decision makers pause to examine the veracity of all claims made by Soitec.
Voters may also question why County officials have not yet seen fit to end the County’s revolving door policy that allows planning officials to work for companies with projects before the County and vice versa-- a system that enables conflicts of interests and potentially, corruption.
Public comment period ends March 3 for Soitec proposed solar projects in Boulevard
Public comments on the project are being accepted through March 3rd. For details on how to submit comments, see http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/node/14938.
Note: this story was updated March 5, 2014 with clarifications provided by Soitec regarding an error in their original statement.