On a recent weekday afternoon, Al Vogler pulls a 12-foot pole from the back of his pickup truck and trudges to the edge of a 30-acre lot a few blocks from his home on the rugged outskirts of Hesperia, a desert town about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
“So let me walk out here a few feet and I’ll wave to you from where the spot is and you take a look,” says Vogler as he marches out into the middle of the field.
The sand is carpeted in thick desert brush, and ringed by modest single and two-story houses. And it could also soon be home to a solar energy project that residents aim to stop. Vogler reaches the middle of the field, pole in hand, and turns around to show me one reason why.
“Can you see the mountains?” he shouts. Meaning, can I see them above the top of the pole. I can’t. That’s Vogler’s point.
“There will be over 10,000 solar panels out there and you will not be able to see through the project, chain-link fence or not,” says Vogler.
It’s these kinds of smaller-scale solar farms that really spurred the county’s temporary ban, not the mammoth, lake-size projects way out in the middle of the Mojave. These would be a lot closer to people like Vogler, who worry about spoiled views, land devaluation, flood control and other issues.
“We don’t oppose solar. We only want it not in an existing residential community. It’s not like these requests have gone back 20 years ago because they haven’t. It’s really a fairly recent phenomenon within the last two to three years. The county was caught unprepared for this,” says Vogler.
San Bernardino County is one of the most coveted spots in the nation for solar development, thanks to vast open spaces crisscrossed with interstate highways, existing power lines and local leaders who generally welcomed clean-energy ventures in recent years.
The projects were seen by many as solid job creators and a way to gin up new tax revenue. Greg Devereaux says the county was also trying to get on board with California’s energy goal of generating one-third of the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2020. Devereaux is the county’s CEO.
“Because the county was trying to be supportive of the state’s efforts to start developing renewable energy, and in our haste I don’t think we adequately assessed impacts on some of our residential areas and in some of our desert areas,” says Devereaux.
So in June the county imposed a moratorium on new solar projects until it can establish a clear set of guidelines for where and how they are built. The moratorium won’t affect a handful of projects already under construction, or the roughly two dozen with pending applications, though it’s likely the county will review those applications with greater scrutiny. That worries Bill Perez.
“My main concern is that a moratorium is now a position of no. Everything stops, all development,” says Perez.
Perez is regional director of the California State Building and Construction Trades Council. He says the county’s action could scare off new solar ventures. The Large Scale Solar Association echoes Perez’s concern, saying it’s dismayed by the moratorium and hopes it gets lifted soon.
“Time is of the essence,” says Perez. “Investors are going to get very worried about investing in projects for the up-front cost in takes to get permitting done.”
One of the small-scale projects now operating in the county is Newberry Solar 1. It’s in the sparsely populated community of Newberry Springs about a half-hour drive east of Barstow. And it’s just yards from the front porch of retired attorney James Doles, marring the view that he moved out here to get.
“The aesthetics, the visual is a quite valuable asset out here to a piece of land,” says Doles
Doles fought the project but lost. He knew he wouldn’t like the glare reflecting off a field of solar panels that stand two stories high, or what would happen when the site was stripped of vegetation. The area is home to punishing winds, and desert brush helps keep the sand in place. Now it piles up in mounds on Doles’ property.
But he says the project owners are doing their best to address these problems. So, he’s come to grudgingly accept his new neighbor. Doles believes it is possible to live with solar in your backyard if operators and residents can work together.
“Now if you’re just against it because you’re against it, I understand that point of view,” says Doles.
“You came out here because you wanted to be away from civilization. You didn’t want to have something put in to supply electricity to all the people in L.A., especially given the fact that our former governor said: If we can’t use the Mojave Desert, then what the hell good is it?”
Doles is referring to former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s speech five years ago at the Yale University Climate Conference.
“If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave Desert, I don’t know where the hell we can put it,” quipped Schwarzenegger in a speech expressing his frustration with environmental regulations that he said were tying up solar development.
It’s the kind of comment that really gets under the skin of Chuck Bell.
“We are basically (seen as) a rural ghetto, but we are a lot better and a lot bigger than what we look, ” says Bell.
He heads the Lucerne Valley Chamber of Commerce, which covers communities in the Joshua Tree area. It’s a region renowned for its pristine desert visits and outdoor recreation.
It’s also an area that has become extremely attractive to small-scale solar developers. Bell, who’s in favor of the county’s solar moratorium, says eco-tourism is what really keeps the economy humming, not solar farms that attract no tourism and employ few full-time workers.
“So in terms of property tax advantage? None. In terms of property devaluations? Significant,” says Bell.
“We just can’t afford to have that kind of land use interfere with our land-use integrity that we’ve established by virtue not only of our custom, culture and history but our community plan that we basically wrote, ” he says.
Bell and other local leaders say they’ve identified alternate locations close by that they believe would meet the needs of small-scale solar, while not creating a nuisance for desert residents.