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San Diego is going to need lots of renewable energy if it’s going to nix planet-warming emissions from its economy in the coming decades, as it has pledged to do. One new study shows the county could technically generate what its people will need within its borders, but San Diego will probably need help from its neighbors.
Enter Imperial County. With a population 18 times smaller than San Diego, this 4.4 thousand square mile swath of land is rich in resources. It has first dibs on Colorado River water over entire western states, fueling a $2 billion agricultural industry that provides much of America’s winter vegetables.
But San Diego is more interested in capturing its sun, wind and the heat rolling beneath Imperial County ground.
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors hired teams of researchers to figure out what it would take for the region to eliminate carbon emissions in less than two decades. A portion of that strategy published in March showed one of the fastest and cheapest ways to make San Diego’s energy grid carbon free would be developing and delivering those Imperial County energies.
Renewable energy projects are already popping up in Imperial, especially in the southwest corner of the county. That’s where Trevor Tagg works a small farm he refused to sell which is now surrounded by solar panels. It’s easier for private developers of renewable energy projects to buy property from land owners who are no longer connected to agriculture, than it is from owners who are also farmers like him.
He thinks turning farmland into renewable energy projects is a bad trade-off.
“Food is going to be more valuable than ever in the world we live in now,” Tagg said. “We can’t eat solar panels.”
JB Hamby, a board member of the Imperial Irrigation District, which controls the local water and power supply, said he opposes building solar on productive farmland.
“We’ve got millions of acres of perfectly suitable land in the desert,” Hamby said, referring to the area east of Imperial’s fertile plain, much of which is federally controlled land.
“If you’re a developer … there’s all kinds of federal red tape you could go through, but it’s easier to go and buy out a farmer,” Hamby said.
Still, procuring renewables from Imperial Valley is one of the few ways San Diego could reach its projected energy demand by 2050, the researchers say. The cost of generating energy there is relatively cheap, from $31 to about $42 per megawatt hour, according to the county’s study. And there’s existing infrastructure built by San Diego Gas and Electric to get it to San Diego.
San Diego could try to decarbonize its grid on its own but many barriers exist. To identify those, researchers Emily Leslie of Montara Mountain Energy, an energy consulting firm, and Joseph Bettles, who worked on the study while at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, took a map of the county and pinpointed where renewables could be built based on six different scenarios that reflect possible policy decisions.
Building renewables only on land classified as vacant or for agricultural redevelopment is a fairly cheap option, but it only gets the region to 30 percent of the energy it needs by 2050.
Or San Diego could decide to keep renewables off land that is really good at sucking carbon from the atmosphere, called carbon sequestration. That would push potential renewables projects out of rural east county and further inland toward the urban core. But that basically doubles the price and meets less than half the expected 2050 energy demand. It’s a similar story should local politicians rule-out renewables on land preserved for conservation.
In one scenario San Diego could meet its renewable energy needs within its own borders. That’s if renewables were built on lower-value agricultural lands, ones that are fallow or idle, or even shrublands and grasslands. That’s a relatively cheap option compared to the others. A lot of that would be built in rural parts of the county like Warner Springs, a valley in Cleveland National Forest along Highway 79, and in Jacumba, where one potential solar farm is already facing an uphill battle.
In almost all scenarios the researchers looked at, virtually none of San Diego’s decarbonizing gets done without help from the Jacumba area. The tiny unincorporated town just west of Imperial County’s border is nestled next to a huge San Diego Gas and Electric substation feeding Imperial energy to San Diego via a transmission line called the Sunrise PowerLink.
“I’m not sure they know how big the wave is that’s coming,” said Leslie, one of the researchers. “There’s thousands of megawatts of developer applications looking to interconnect.”
That’s unwelcome news for Jeff Osborne, a developer from Fresno who moved to Jacumba, aiming to flip its local hotel and hot springs into a tourist destination. Immediately east of town, the Irvine-based branch of a German solar company wants to redevelop a nearby farm field into about 90 megawatts of solar for San Diego Community Power customers.
The project is currently locked-up in a lawsuit, since Osborne hired the same attorney who worked to block the Keystone XL pipeline to take down the JVR Energy Park.
Looking out at the field slated for photovoltaic energy from his hilltop home, Osborne said he hopes that property remains a natural, bucolic landscape.
“Considering we’re a tourist town … I don’t think people want to leave the city to drive up to an industrial energy park,” Osborne said.
Michael Stanton, senior vice president of development at BayWa Solar Projects r.e., the company developing the Jacumba Valley Ranch project, wrote in an email that once fully developed the solar farm would be capable of powering 60,000 homes and offset more than 500,000 metric tons of carbon emissions over its lifespan.
“The primary appeal of the Jacumba site is its relatively flat topography, the adjacency to SDG&E transmission infrastructure and excellent solar resources on previously disturbed land,” Stanton wrote. “We know it is a priority for Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs) to try and locate generation resources within their service territories, and we want to help San Diego Community Power achieve that goal.”
News of a “wave” of utility-scale solar out east also roils anti-transmission line advocates like Bill Powers, a board member of the Protect Our Communities Foundation, which advocated against the city of San Diego’s recently renewed franchise agreement with San Diego Gas and Electric.
He calls the Sunrise PowerLink, an over 100-mile transmission line built in 2012, a “giant extension cord” to the economic benefit of SDG&E. Utility companies can collect about a 10 percent profit on anything they build. Powers fought the Sunrise PowerLink before its construction in 2008 because he was worried about precisely what’s happening: large, utility-scale solar projects dominating the push for clean energy over rooftop solar.
Powers disputes the UCSD study, arguing that it overestimated the cost of rooftop solar while lowballing the cost of transmission upgrades needed to move renewable energy from Imperial County to San Diego.
“The presumption here is that the cheapest, biggest bang for the buck is what we will do,” Powers said. “That is not true. That is not what we did the last time. Last time we built the big transmission line that cost us billions of dollars.”
Specifically, the researchers analyzed whether rooftop solar, along with small solar parks on urban, potentially polluted land called Brownfields, could meet San Diego’s energy demands. It could, Leslie said, but it might not be economically feasible.
The study assumed rooftop would make up 30 percent of demand due to its $114 per megawatt hour cost, compared to the average $40 per megawatt hour cost of utility-scale solar built on rural properties.
Joe Bettles, who teamed up with Leslie on the study, said though the cost of rooftop technology – the solar panels themselves – has dropped significantly over the years, labor costs are higher as well as the cost of permitting each project.
“You need a really big sales machine to go door to door and convince building owners one at a time,” Leslie said.
It’s cheaper, they say, for a utility to build a large solar project on flat rural land.
“Large utility scale ground-mounted solar projects naturally have economies of scale… they will naturally tend to be cheaper on a per megawatt basis if you’re building a 200 megawatt plant versus one that’s less than one percent of that size,” Leslie said.
There are big new sales machines entering the marketplace. San Diego Community Power and Clean Energy Alliance are government-run public power companies with the sole purpose of providing 100 percent renewable energy at a cheaper rate than SDG&E. It’s San Diego Community Power that secured the contract for JVR Energy park, and a 150 megawatt solar project in Imperial near Holtville called the Viking Energy Farm.
“Our philosophy is that it’s going to take all of the above. It’ll take rooftop solar, smaller scale and distributive energy systems and utility scales to reach renewable energy goals,” said Cody Hooven, San Diego Community Power’s chief operations officer.
Right now, San Diego Community Power doesn’t decide where renewables should be built. The governing documents of San Diego Community Power show there’s a preference for local power, but its boundaries aren’t explicitly defined. In the case of the Viking and JVR project in Jacumba, the public utility basically told the marketplace how much renewable energy it wanted to build, and it’s up to private developers to pitch a project.
“Down the line we could eventually build our own projects,” Hooven said.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the developer of the Jacumba project, BayWa Solar Projects r.e., is based in Irvine and a branch of a German company.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Bill Powers’ affiliation. He is a board member of the Protect Our Communities Foundation.