March 24, 2008

Solar panels could come to Lucerne Valley

Proposal part of power trend

Lauren McSherry
Staff Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Lucerne Valley was named after the acres of alfalfa farmed by the city's founders. Now, under an application to develop 21 square miles of the valley, rows of glossy solar panels could redefine the area.

The Cannon Power Corp. in Rancho Santa Fe submitted an application last month to the Bureau of Land Management to construct photovoltaic panels in the Lucerne Valley Dry Lake bed, according to Bureau of Land Management documents.

Lucerne Valley, which is located about 20 miles east of Apple Valley, is situated in the Mojave Desert of western San Bernardino County.

The Cannon proposal is the latest project to garner attention in what is being characterized as the desert's latest "Gold Rush" - only this time it's a race to scoop up land for renewable-energy projects.

BLM, which is entrusted with the stewardship of 6.1 million acres of public land in the county, is fielding more than 100 applications for renewable-energy projects, said San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, who represents the 1st District.

Two of the largest proposed solar projects, one for 59 square miles and another for 82 square miles, could be built in Ward Valley, north of Twentynine Palms, according to BLM documents. The applications to construct solar projects of 20 square miles or more exceeds the number of wind power projects of the same size, documents show.

The BLM's California Desert District, which encompasses the High Desert, saw a rapid increase in the number of renewable-energy applications in 2006, following a renewable-energy policy rolled out by the governor and the passage of the federal Energy Policy Act, said Al Stein, deputy district manager.

The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors adopted a memorandum of understanding with BLM last week, setting guidelines to jointly review the environmental impact of photovoltaic and wind power projects. The agreement is expected to ensure there are more opportunities for the public to weigh in during the environmental review process.

"That's what a lot of this is about, giving the public a chance to comment," Mitzelfelt said on March 18 before the board adopted the agreement. "I want to make sure the benefits at least balance or outweigh the costs."

The projects have environmental consequences and their sheer size means less land will be left for other uses, such as hiking and ranching, he said.

Last month, the regional branch of the Sierra Club estimated roughly 110 square miles of the Mojave Desert could be developed for renewable-energy projects, based on the applications submitted to BLM.

Project applicants and BLM officials contend that only a fraction of the land they apply for is actually developed. Further complicating the situation, some companies submit multiple applications for the same locations.

"It's very difficult to put a number on it," Stein said. "We've tried to avoid that because it doesn't accurately reflect anything."