Solar licensing dispute emerges in California

In the final hours of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved a move to help several solar projects bypass local elected officials and get licensed instead by the state.

It was exactly the kind of high-stakes deal that comes together frequently in the hubbub of the Capitol, where negotiations that have moved along for months reach a crescendo just hours before lawmakers adjourn. It was an important moment, fraught with long-term political and fiscal implications, although it was overshadowed by other, higher-profile events on the last night of session.

In these agreements, somebody’s ox inevitably gets gored. This time the counties believe it was their turn.

“They took away local review of what frankly are local projects, said Inyo County Planning Director Joshua Hart.

Hart isn’t alone.

The deal “sets a dangerous precedent and could lead to more requests from developers attempting to circumvent the local process,” the California State Association of Counties wrote to Gov. Brown.

The governor rejected the counties’ argument and on Oct. 5 approved the agreement in the bill, SB 226 by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

Simitian and the governor said the bill would help expedite solar generation, help the state meet its renewable energy goals and was especially beneficial in a time of recession.

Simitian noted that it only applied to a limited handful of projects – probably a half-dozen or less — that were set up as thermal solar projects between August 2007 and September 2011. Other projects’ certification will proceed as before, Simitian said, and the bill also only applies to projects on federal land.

“The bill does not change the licensing roles and responsibilities of either local governments or the energy commission with respect to solar thermal or solar photovoltaic,” Simitian said. “It does respond to a change in the market that pushed folks away from solar to PV.”

The crux of the issue is the licensing of solar thermal plants, which produce heat, as opposed to the licensing of solar photovoltaic plants, which don’t.

Solar thermal plants of 50 megawatts or more are licensed by the state through the California Energy Commission. These plants typically use mirrors to capture sunlight and focus it on liquids to create steam, which in turn drive turbines to create electricity.

Solar photovoltaic, or PV, plants are licensed by local officials. PV plants use cells to turn sunlight into electricity, which is transferred via power lines to users.

Simitian has a reputation as a heavy hitter in the Capitol on renewable energy and environmental protections, but this bill drew fire from environmentalists.

“We really didn’t see a need for it,” said Carl Zichella of the Natural Resources Defense Council.  “We thought it was a real slap in the face for the counties. The counties are really needed to help finish the Desert Renewable Conservation Plan. We need them as partners instead of putting them at odds with the whole process.”

On Jan. 11, the CEC, grappling with the licensing of a 250 MW converted solar plant known as the Ridgecrest Solar Power Project in Kern County, is expected to decide whether it has the authority to license the plant, which seeks reconfiguration to PV.

But opponents of the move say the Ridgecrest decision may serve as a template for other PV plants across the state. The CEC may consider expanding its authority to include PV licensing, a change that Simitian said was not contemplated in the bill. Riverside, Inyo, Kern, Kings and Tulare all have expressed concerns about state-licensed PV.

A trade association representing solar energy companies, the Solar Alliance, questioned the wisdom of allowing the CEC to handle the PV licensing.

The move “could significantly harm our industry’s relationship with counties that will host our projects throughout the state to clean, local energy,” the Alliance’s Sara Birmingham wrote to the CEC on Dec. 12. “Moving decision making to Sacramento will create significant impediments to cultivating local support for local PV generation.”

The solar thermal plants affected by the 11th-hour agreement were subject to state licensing but were seeking conversion to non-thermal solar operation. The agreement applies only to those who already had been approved for thermal but wanted to shift to PV.

In part, that shift was prompted by the cost of solar panels, which dropped dramatically due to Chinese imports and solar PV plants appeared more financially attractive than solar thermal plants.

But making the change to non-thermal requires licensing from the locals – something that the plants were not anxious to do. So they proposed that the Legislature allow their conversions to licensed by the Energy Commission instead.

“The plants already had been certified as solar thermal, so why should they have to go back to Square One?” Simitian said.

But the counties are not pleased, contending that land-use issues are a fundamental authority of local governments, not the Energy Commission. Interfering with a county’s permitting process is unconstitutional, they argue, and the CEC’s authority under state law is limited to thermal power plants and related electricity transmission lines.

The counties believe PV plants are a basic land-use issue best handled by local planning agencies.

“Solar, photo voltaic and wind are very site-specific, very location-sensitive,” said Lorelei Oviatt, the planning director of Kern County.

“People don’t want to talk to appointed officials in Sacramento, they want to talk to elected officials who can be held accountable. That means local elected officials,” said Oviatt, who noted that her office has permitted more than 7,000 MW in Kern County.

Oviatt also was skeptical that PV licensing would be expedited.

“They say it (the CEC) is one-stop shopping, but at the end of the day the final meeting always is held in Sacramento and it is not conducive to public input at all.”

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