By Sammy Roth
Feb 28, 2019 | 4:35 PM
A view of a smaller-scale commercial solar project in Lucerne Valley, Calif., seen on Feb. 25, 2019. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
California’s largest county has banned the construction of large solar and wind farms on more than 1 million acres of private land, bending to the will of residents who say they don’t want renewable energy projects industrializing their rural desert communities northeast of Los Angeles.
Thursday’s 4-1 vote by San Bernardino County’s Board of Supervisors highlighted a challenge California could face as it seeks to eliminate the burning of planet-warming fossil fuels.
State lawmakers passed a bill last year requiring utility companies to get 60% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and 100% from climate-friendly sources by 2045. But achieving those goals will require cooperation from local governments — and big solar and wind farms, like many infrastructure projects, are often unpopular at the local level.
Representatives of national solar developers including First Solar and Clearway Energy urged the supervisors to consider the economic benefits of solar projects, including jobs and tax revenues. They were joined by union members, who told the supervisors that solar farms create hundreds of high-paying construction jobs.
“They’re temporary construction jobs, but that’s what we make our livelihood off of. And to put language in there that strictly prohibits these projects from going forward would be irresponsible,” said Justin Lanford, president of the San Bernardino County chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
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. Supporters say the designation would draw tourists and boost local economies. But Fairchild is worried that several solar projects proposed along or near the highway would ruin the pristine desert landscapes that make the area so attractive.
“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,” Fairchild told the supervisors. “Once destroyed, these landscapes can never be brought back.”