California county bans construction of renewable energy infrastructure

Over the last ten years, the cost of solar panels and wind turbines declined so significantly, and were scaled-up so quickly, that many people came to believe that a transition to renewables, as proposed by advocates of a Green New Deal, was all but inevitable. Yet grassroots opposition to solar and wind farms is growing and has nothing to do with fossil fuel interests, climate skepticism, or bureaucratic inertia. Instead, it is motivated by concerns over the impact of renewables on the natural environment and quality-of-life.

Last week San Bernardino, the largest county in California, banned the building of further large solar and wind farms, on more than 1 million acres of private land, over the opposition of renewable energy lobbyists and labor unions. They did so on behalf of conservationists and locals seeking to protect fragile desert ecosystems and residents said they don’t want renewable energy projects industrializing their rural desert communities, northeast of Los Angeles.

The San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors voted 4-1, highlighting a challenge California could face as it seeks to eliminate the burning of fossil fuels. Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring utility companies to get 60 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and 100 percent from climate-friendly sources by 2045. Achieving those goals will require cooperation from local governments, where big solar and wind farms, along with many other infrastructure projects, are often unpopular at the local level.

Dozens of local residents spoke in support of the proposed ban, known as Renewable Energy Policy 4.10. They came from high desert communities such as Daggett, Joshua Tree, and Lucerne Valley, where existing solar projects are seen by many as eyesores that destroy desert ecosystems and fuel larger dust storms. Sara Fairchild, a resident of Pioneertown, said she’s been working with a group trying to get California Highway 247, which runs from Yucca Valley to Barstow, designated as a state scenic highway. “These vast open areas are precious for their natural, historical and recreational qualities. But they are fragile, and no amount of mitigation can counter the damage that industrial-scale renewable energy projects would cause,” Ms. Fairchild told the supervisors, “Once destroyed, these landscapes can never be brought back.”

The policy approved by the supervisors prohibits utility-oriented renewable energy projects — defined as projects that would mostly serve out-of-town utility customers, rather than local power needs — within the boundaries of Community Plans that have been adopted by more than a dozen unincorporated towns. Construction of utility-oriented solar and wind farms would also be banned in so-called Rural Living zones. Solar projects that are already going through the permitting process would still be allowed to proceed. Supervisor Robert Lovingood said the county has already designated several smaller areas where renewable energy projects could be approved.

Few experts believe solar and wind farms can continue to expand without continued federal subsidies, which are nearly 100 times greater than the ones for nuclear and have been in place for over 25 years. Solar and wind developers will no doubt go back to Congress for more money, but they won’t likely have the support of many policy experts. Conservatives have been more critical of subsidies for renewables than progressives.

The greatest impediments to using more renewables isn’t coming from climate skeptics and the fossil fuel industry, but increasingly from conservationists and local activists with little influence beyond their local political representatives.