How NIMBYs Killed a San Bernardino Solar Farm

About a year ago, the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to reject a proposal for a 3 square mile solar power plant near the famous Joshua Tree National Park.

The project, proposed by Regenerate Power, would have created around 200 construction jobs, and 53 full time positions at the power plant. After nine years of negotiating, and proposals that even included a deal with the City of Los Angeles to supply solar power to the grid, the Soda Mountain Power Plant will not be constructed.

When looking at several factors on paper, one might wonder how the power plant will never come to be. San Bernardino remains a conservative stronghold, with overwhelming Republican political representation. Surely, the voters and their elected officials would not stymie a $30 million investment. Not to mention, upon having its project rejected, Regenerate CEO Reyad Fezzani said that the company remained “committed” to creating “well-paying local union jobs.” And these well-paying union jobs would be welcome in a county that, at the time of the August 2016 County Supervisor vote had a 6.2 unemployment rate – .7 points greater than the state of California, and 1.3 points higher than the national average.

The proposed site is zoned industrial, as it would have occupied a decommissioned airport. No problem there.
The environmental community certainly wouldn’t shun, depending on the proposal stage, a clean 264-287 megawatt plant – one that secured federal approval and would be over 1 percent of President Obama’s initiative to develop 20,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020. Except, they did.

NIMBYs – those who would rather have a development Not In My Back Yard – appear in many forms. Ironically, in the case of Soda Mountain, environmental activism finally put Soda Mountain to bed. Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors voted against the state certification of an environmental impact report. The project was good enough for authorities in the federal government and state of California, yet it didn’t pass the test at the county level.

Normally, one would think that someone who is “pro-environment”, would be enthusiastically in favor of bringing more renewable energy onto the electric grid. This case is a great study for grassroots lobbying. In fighting for or against large developments such as Soda Mountain, you never know which unlikely coalitions are going to form – or which groups may divide without being on the ground and talking to neighbors in the community. Here, conservation outweighed clean air.

By dragging the fight out for nine years, certain environmental groups showed what strong organizing can do. The National Park Service, with Joshua Tree National Park nearby, took a stand against the development. The local Sierra Club chapter rallied against the plant. Groups concerned about the natural movements of Bighorn Sheep weighed in. It was solid organizing, spearheaded by conservation groups that prevented Regenerate from flying under the radar.

Of course, the NIMBYism near Soda Mountain was not all environmental. The proposed solar plant, which would not have used mammoth machines to ground rocks into small pieces, nor would have drilled into the Earth in search of oil, was to be placed on a decommissioned airport site. And yet, neighbors were raising concerned about noise. There were concerns about hurting tourism, in that groups in many corners feared that a solar farm would be an eye sore and hurt the allure of the Mojave Desert’s beautiful features. Others thought that the number of jobs that the plant would have created were unrealistic.

Ultimately, the last straw for Regenerate was the environmental impact report – or more bluntly, enough County Supervisors felt political pressure to kill the project on environmental grounds. Had allies of Regenerate organized more local support, increased pressure on one of the dissenting County Supervisors, or flipped a few environmental groups, perhaps the solar farm would be under construction right now. That same result may also have occurred had some neighbors and environmental organizations stayed quiet. But, as we saw from the 3-2 vote by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors, everything is political – and winning politically usually means winning at organizing.

– Sam Taylor, Campaign Field Director

By | 2017-07-27T06:33:14+00:00 June 29th, 2017|