Borrego Sun - Since 1949

No to Solar


Last updated 3/28/2023 at 1:38pm

Solar panels across desert lands – a possibility of what the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park could look like if installed.

The County's favorite plan to reduce carbon emissions preferred option is to place large industrial scale Solar projects in Jacumba, Borrego Springs and Boulevard. The plan, according to most environmental and ecological conservation organizations, has many flaws. One serious problem in selecting these areas to carry the county's burden to go 100 percent Solar by 2042, is water.

By looking at just one of the issues desert Solar farms face: water, it's apparent this type of installations can't be done without importing water. The County's Decarbonization Framework did not take into account the new underground water laws with serious restraints against large well "pumpers," along with separating and the disposal of pollutants in the underground water. And then there's the fact that Borrego Springs doesn't have water to spare.

Remember those water trucks drawing water from a Borrego Springs Water District (BSWD) well in the Dry Gulch area? And concern from residents about BSWD giving water to fund construction of a Solar farm in Ocotillo Wells. Especially, when future water shortage is a real issue in Borrego Springs.

Everything in renewal or alternative energy is a tradeoff between bad and better. In industrial scale projects of 400 to 1,000 acres there is a lack of understanding about water issues, especially in a desert region.

That particular project is an example about approving a medium scale Solar project that assumes there will be all the water needed.

The Ocotillo Wells Solar project provides an example. It's located in a remote area of San Diego County. Surrounded by public lands, including the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, with access off Split Mountain Road and 3 miles from Highway 78, the project covers 440 acres. The Solar footprint covers 336.4 acres, plus 174 acres for off-site improvements. The remaining 103.6 acres would be left in a natural state, as mitigation for biological and wildlife impacts. One question is would any self-respecting wildlife want to live next to a Solar installation?

Developed by the Gildred Company, which asked for, and received a one-time purchase of 40-acre feet (12.86 million gallons of water) from BWD to be used during construction. In return, the developer agreed to fallow eight acres of citrus, per the County's mitigation policy; and claimed he would be donating 300- plus acres of land to the State Park and making Borrego school donations.

While the fallowing and other contributions of the 2013 agreement didn't pan out, the bottom line, according to Geoff Poole, Manager of the Borrego Water District, is that the district will receive a total of $170,929,44 and the non-refundable fee of $28,000 paid by the developer, for a total of $198, 929. "if all the water is used."

According to Poole, who was quoted in a previous article in the Sun about the arrangement, "The developer will be paying $4,300 per acre-feet. This does not affect water rates to the district's customers, who according to Poole, pay $2/unit of water versus the $10/unit the project will pay."

Poole added, "40 acre-feet isn't a lot of water. In fact, if you divide it into 1,500 acre-feet, (Districts annual water use), it's less than one percent, actually, it's only .3.7 percent of the current water use."

Today, he reports that approximately 30 of the 40-acre-foot water commitment has been met; and that he alerted the developer that the end of the agreement was approaching, and, he (Poole) felt, the BSWD Board was unlikely to consider an extension.

"So, I told them, they need to find another option," he stated, adding that he was told, "They are looking for wells closer to the project."

Which brings to light one of the problems of putting Solar, other than roof top in the desert. Reviewing the projected water needs, unless Ocotillo Wells Solar can convince Imperial Valley Irrigation to share some of the valuable wet stuff, or the well they expect to build; or the one they claim to have; really has water, they are in trouble.

According to the project report, "Water for construction will be provided by the proposed onsite well. Alternatively, water may be provided via the existing onsite well, or via water truck filled at an offsite location (Borrego Springs turned out be the offsite provider) and trucked to the site on an as-needed basis. The Water would be used to support construction activities and dust control.

"The total demand for construction: 12.86 million gallons for grading, brushing and clearing, soil binding roads and land."

That's just the construction phase. There's water needed for ongoing panel washing, and maintenance of roadways for dust suppression. Don't forget that the dust kicked up creates bad air quality. And with the desert winds polluted air can travel great distances.

This water, according to the report will come from the proposed well or the existing onsite well, or, alternatively, via water trucked in from a local water source."

And Poole has already said, "That's not us."

"The projected amount of water to maintain the (Ocotillo Wells) system is estimated at 2,286,415. gallons annually." Multiply that by 30 – 35 years, the average life of a Solar plant, and that's a lot of water.

While Imperial County has water to share. San Diego County desert areas, like Borrego, have none to share. Don't the people, who approve these projects, realize there is a Drought and desert aquifers are losing water, not increasing water, and this is going to continue into the future?

"If it's determined that that onsite water is too hard for panel washing, a filtration system would be used to treat the water," the report stated.

Then, if underground well water is used to clean the panels and a filtration system is required, it's a fact that they are at best 90% effective.

According to the project plan, "That leaves 10% of brine water or additionally polluted water that needs to be stored in a reservoir; and then trucked to one of San Diego's two wastewater pumping stations. Or if that's too expensive (it is) the developer's wastewater would be collected at the site, and ultimately disposed of at an offsite location."

And where should these dumping grounds be found? Not anywhere near an aquifer or environmentally sensitive wetlands, one would hope.

Meanwhile, Sunpin Solar, a California-based Solar developer, held a groundbreaking ceremony on January 10, 2020, celebrating the start of construction on its 98-MW Titan Solar 1 plant in the Ocotillo desert in Imperial County. The 569-acre project, like the Ocotillo Wells Solar farm in San Diego County, is located off of Highway 78. But is located in Imperial County, only miles from Ocotillo Wells' Solar.

This is Sunpin Solar's largest utility-scale Solar project in California, following the successful completion of the 96.75-MW ColGreen North Shore Solar project in Riverside County in 2018.

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