The decision to approve two solar farms west of Calexico is now for the Board of Supervisors, as the Imperial County Planning Commission denied the project Wednesday.
These are the last of a series of major development projects that county staff has recommended for approval, only to see them denied by the Planning Commission.
Commissioners seem to support solar projects, but only as long as they are not placed on farmland, said Armando Villa, director of the Imperial County Planning Department.
Villa also noted that the commissioners who voted to deny the project come from a farming background.
Another issue of importance is also whether permanent jobs can come from renewable energy projects.
“I’m not buying that,” said commissioner Dave Gaddis in reference to solar projects creating permanent jobs. Solar panels by nature don’t need much maintenance, he said.
“So we are going to take the best farmland — really, the most productive farmland in the world out of production?” Gaddis asked rhetorically moments before entertaining a motion to deny the projects.
If approved by the board, Mount Signal and Calexico Solar would generate 600 megawatts and take about 4,000 acres out of production.
But for Tom Buttgenbach, president of 8minutenergy Renewables, the displacement of what he called “low-productivity farmland,” is justified.
The farmland in question is used primarily for grass crops that don’t sustain many workers, Buttgenbach said. In addition, “8minutenergy has agreed to enter into a public benefit agreement.”
The agreement would mean more than $1 billion in revenue to the Valley in 25 years, he said during his presentation. Part of the revenue would come with 300 temporary construction jobs and 30 “well-paying, permanent jobs” during the life of the project, he said.
The Calexico School District would benefit as well, according to Buttgenbach, who then listed the ecological benefits of solar projects, such as the reduction of CO2 emissions and water consumption.
But most commissioners and some members of the public dismissed the benefits while pointing to the detrimental impact to the farming industry.
“I oppose this project,” said Danny Robinson, an El Centro farmer who farms some 1,200 acres where the projects would stand. “I just want to be on the record on that,” he said.
“If you (had) to choose between food or cheap energy, what would you pick?” asked Gaddis of Robinson.
Food and water, Robinson responded.
Questions of the same nature were posed to other speakers who came forward.
“It’s been difficult years for most of the working families in Imperial County,” said Ramon Castro, an electrician from Brawley. “I urge you to please move this project forward,” he said.
“They are growing weeds on this field brother. This is productive farmland, man,” said Gaddis after a series of escalating questions he made to Castro.
“But that field is not putting food on my table (sir),” responded Castro.
Cheers for and against Castro’s comments followed.
But most were cheers of support from electricians and construction workers and a couple of Calexico residents who spoke before and after Castro.
Out of the 25 members of the public who spoke before the commission, at least 16 were in support while the remaining group spoke against it.
One of those who spoke against the project was Linsey Dale, Imperial County Farm Bureau executive director.
Dale raised questions about the project’s dust mitigation, a lack of proper soil study to determine its productivity, and how it’s unknown if solar panels’ temperature could impact crops.
She also addressed Castro right before leaving the podium.
“You mention that farmland and agriculture are not impacting your income and yet it is impacting your lunch,” she said. “Farmers produce food and you like to eat and so do we all. Take it out of production and we don’t eat.”
The Board of Supervisors will decide the matter in about two weeks, according to Villa.
Staff Writer Alejandro Davila can be reached at 760-337-3445 or firstname.lastname@example.org