Since the incursion of industrial-scale solar installations began on the edge of the Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center communities in 2022, the residents have been working to present an effective resistance to the proposed Easley Project, slated to be built by Intersect Power to the north/northeast of Lake Tamarisk.

Some months ago, the residents initiated a successful GoFundMe campaign to raise money to hire an attorney—and were able to retain Frank Angel, of Angel Law in Santa Monica, who has been litigating cases related to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) since the 1990s.

The CEQA is at the heart of the Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center residents’ objections to the current Easley Project development plan. Intersect is in the midst of navigating the state and county processes to obtain approval of the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) the company is required to create and submit to the Riverside County Planning Department. After that department reviews the report, the Board of Supervisors would vote on whether to approve Intersect’s use of county-owned land.

With Angel’s assistance, residents arranged to have the communities of Desert Center and Lake Tamarisk jointly designated as an unincorporated community called Active Communities/Desert Center (AC/DC). The AC/DC team took on administrative titles and roles, and with Angel’s help, worked for 45 days on their DEIR comment letter, stating their objections to the Easley construction plan.

On March 11, the AC/DC team submitted the 53-page document to the Riverside County Planning Department. It disputes various assertions by Intersect—and puts forward a compromise proposal that the residents call the “Respect Lake Tamarisk Alternative” (RLTA).

In a recent interview, Mark Carrington, a resident and the senior technical advisor of AC/DC, explained what the group’s objective.

“We have a reasonable alternative that is economically and technically feasible,” Carrington said. “Those two terms are precisely what’s required by CEQA and NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).”

Carrington said the alternative meets the project’s energy requirements and identifies other usable nearby land while including dust and health-management plans that have been successfully followed in other places.

“It’s very doable,” Carrington said. “You can still get the entire (projected) production output, and it can be done respectfully to our community.”

Environmental issues of concern to AC/DC include the potential overdraft of the Chuckwalla Valley aquifer due, in part, to the additional water the Easley Project will require for dust suppression, and infrastructure cleaning and maintenance. AC/DC said other business interests being planned in their Chuckwalla Valley region will require water from the aquifer as well, including revived plans to build a new truck stop/restaurant and other businesses in Desert Center on north side of the I-10 freeway; two potential developments that would bring more than 100 new housing units to the area; and a pumped-storage hydroelectric facility that could be developed in old mining pits.

AC/DC resident Mark Carrington: “We have a reasonable alternative that is economically and technically feasible.”

“If that did happen,” Carrington said, “that would use 4,000 acre-feet of water out of this aquifer per year for four years, and then 2,000 acre-feet per year every year after for evaporation loss. That would kill our aquifer. Right now, we have 100 acre-feet (of differential) before the inflow and the outflow” don’t balance out anymore.

Resident Teresa Pierce, AC/DC’s chief executive offer, expressed frustration at what she saw as Intersect Power’s unwillingness to compromise.

“They said that, since the visual (beauty) was already degraded around here” due to prior solar development, “it was insignificant for them to have to do very much to improve the visual (impacts of) the Easley Project,” she said. “They also said that the water, dust and traffic and everything else was insignificant.”

The Independent reached out to Elizabeth Knowles, Intersect Power’s director of community engagement, and asked her about the AC/DC compromise plan.

“The Intersect Power team responded to feedback from the Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort by creating and proposing an alternative, technically feasible project design that shifts the project’s location from the originally proposed 750 feet to a distance more than three times that, approximately half a mile away from the nearest residence, and have relocated the substation from its originally proposed location, per their request,” Knowles said. (It’s worth noting that nearby residents have requested a buffer zone of at least a mile between homes and any solar panels.)

Knowles continued: “Additionally, we have offered the resort a payment for landscaping to help further buffer any potential impacts to their views. We have sent courtesy notifications to all members of the resort ahead of key milestones in the permitting process, as well as voluntarily notifying them whenever there is planned activity on the proposed site. We have supported investments towards the betterment of the resort such as their direct request for monthly highway trash clean-up efforts and a recent proactive contribution to the Lake Tamarisk Lions Club for Christmas gifts for the children of Desert Center.”

Knowles insisted that Intersect has continuously maintained a dialogue with nearby residents over the last year and a half. “In addition to frequent emails, texts and phone calls … we have had several in-person meetings, taken members on field tours of a nearby project, and hosted an informational open house,” Knowles write. “Over the past year and a half, we have made significant investments to the Eagle Mountain School including a donation for the purchase of a new school bus, additional after-school and summer time recreational programming, the creation of a school garden, and sponsoring their annual fall festival. Additionally, we have provided critical in-kind support, supporting the school to remain open during emergency situations. Intersect Power team members will be volunteering at the school next month, helping with a variety of improvements to the school grounds. … Intersect will continue to reach out to engage with the Lake Tamarisk Desert Resort throughout the planning, construction and operation of our projects.”

The AC/DC officers said they have been unimpressed by Intersect’s efforts.

“They have offered us $40,000 to build our own berm, and (they said they’d give us) six trees,” said Don Sneddon AC/DC’s director of communication. “But we had to put the trees in, and water them and build the berm ourselves. Initially, that was their response to one of our requests in the past year. … They also bought a sign to say they pick up the trash (along Interstate 10) as part of Adopt-a-Highway. They think that’s great. We wanted to send them a picture (to show) that so far that’s not working either.”

Added Pierce: “It’s still trashy.”

Attorney Frank Angel is representing the Active Communities/Desert Center residents.

Angel, AC/DC’s attorney, said the DEIR submitted to Riverside County by Intersect is deficient in many regards.

“Having seen quite a number of EIRs, I would not rate this one with a passing grade,” Angel said during a recent interview. “This one is a failing grade, particularly on the alternatives analysis. I can summarize one reason why. I have never seen an EIR that looks only at one alternative to the project, and that one alternative is a mirror image of the project itself. The whole purpose of alternatives is, as the word implies, to provide the supervisors, or whoever the decision makers are, a range of choices. The courts and the CEQA guidelines very clearly require that an EIR look at a reasonable range of alternatives. For them to come up with only one alternative, that in and of itself is not a range. … It’s not even one reasonable (option), because it is extremely similar. … It does nothing to protect the microphyll woodlands that are to the north of Lake Tamarisk. There’s nothing that deals with how (Intersect) would reduce the groundwater use. There’s certainly nothing that would protect the public and the private views from Lake Tamarisk or from Alligator Rock, and other areas (including the) new Chuckwalla National Monument.”

Angel’s 51-page letter in support of the AC/DC comments, also submitted to the county on March 11, raises concerns focusing on a variety of issues including air quality, biological resources (including sensitive and endangered plant and bird species), greenhouse-gas emissions and water concerns.

“They completely disregarded impacts on public health,” Angel said. “It’s a hyper-technical EIR, and very formulaic … but when you look at it, and you read it as a whole, even the air quality, and the water quality sections, or wildfire or anything, there is nothing about the risks to human health. CEQA specifically requires that an EIR examine any substantially adverse effects on human beings, directly or indirectly, that result from the impacts to the environment.”

Angel said he thinks the county should tell Intersect to go back to the drawing board.

“Intersect Power should re-do the EIR, curing the deficiencies that we pointed out in the air quality, water quality, water resources and biological and other sections,” Angel said. “They should offer the board of supervisors a reasonable range of alternatives, (including) one … creating a (one-mile) buffer zone between Lake Tamarisk and both the presently developed area, but also the areas to be developed. They need to consider the Chuckwalla National Monument. If they need to scale back, there are still over 100,000 acres in the plan from the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) alone. That’s available land. So it’s not something that’s impossible.”

This standoff is largely due to decisions made years ago by the state Legislature, the governor’s office and by the California Public Utilities Commission to favor industrial-scale solar installations built miles away from the large population centers, where the resulting power is transmitted via cables. Meanwhile, the decentralized rooftop solar providers who supply solar panels (and now large capacity batteries) to residential and commercial customers have been stymied. In December of 2022, the most damaging blow was delivered to the rooftop solar segment when the CPUC established its controversial Net Energy Metering 3.0 policy, which took affect on April 15, 2023.

As explained by The San Diego Union-Tribune: “In one of the key provisions … new rooftop solar customers would no longer be credited at the retail rate of electricity when their systems generate excess energy but get paid at the ‘actual avoided cost.’ That figure is lower than the retail rate during daylight hours when solar production is abundant and cheap, but it’s higher during evening hours when solar production ramps down to practically zero when the sun goes down, and California’s electric grid is under the most stress. Critics of the CPUC’s ruling say reducing the amount of the credits will undercut the incentive for potential new solar customers to install systems on their homes and businesses. The California Solar and Storage Association, which opposed the decision, estimated the average compensation rate would drop from 30 cents per kilowatt-hour to 8 cents, a reduction of 75 percent.”

Renova’s Vincent Battaglia characterized the competition between large-scale power companies and companies that offer individual solar power as a war that’s “at the end of one of the very last battles.”

Renova Energy CEO Vincent Battaglia said in a recent interview with the Independent that the CPUC is “essentially an extension” of industrial-scale power companies.

“They are an appointed extension of the governor (intended to serve) special interests that support him,” Battaglia said. “Those special interests in this case are large-scale, investor-owned utilities. … The market is guiding the transformation away from centralized utility-driven electricity with transmission lines—the expensive electricity. But instead of the transition that the market wants, to individual (rooftop or micro-grid) power plants, the CPUC stepped in and just gutted any legitimate value based on their own, and the utilities’ calculus.”

Battaglia characterized the competition between large-scale power companies and companies, like Renova, that offer individual solar power as a war that’s “at the end of one of the very last battles.”

“The utility can no longer ask for a lower value (to be assigned) to rooftop. … There is no way for there to be a net metering 4.0,” Battaglia said. “Yet they still are maintaining their excessive costs to deliver their electricity, and that cost continues to go higher. … PG&E had a 28% increase that began in January, and then they just went back to the CPUC for a winter increase of 14%. Then there’ll be a spring increase and a summer increase. They have no solution other than to continue to try to maintain a monopoly.”

According to a Feb. 27 article by Reuters, one of our nation’s most highly respected investment experts is second-guessing the financial stability of power utilities: “Warren Buffett conceded in his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders … that he made a ‘costly mistake’ about electricity. The error was thinking that investing huge sums to supply it to American homes and businesses would generate a steady return. Instead, it is turning into a gigantic problem.”

That problem is being exacerbated by increasingly frequent wildfires and related disasters caused by power utility infrastructure.

“Their overhead and their exposure to fires and other disasters are leading to bankruptcies,” Battaglia said. “We are right now entering an era of utilities’ bankruptcies where they’re going to have to reorganize their debt. Essentially, they become transmission managers, and they’ll no longer be generating electricity.

Even as the rooftop solar sector was being negatively impacted by the new regulations, in 2023, the sector still generated roughly 36% of California’s total annual solar power generation, according to data shared in a recent email by Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of California Solar and Storage Association.

Out at Lake Tamarisk, residents are adamant that they are not against the expansion of solar energy and other renewable energy sources.

“We believe in renewable energy. We just don’t want it 75 feet from our back door,” Sneddon said. “We really want to clarify that point. Intersect Power has options of moving it to meet their goals and to meet our goals. There are options out there. People think, ‘Oh, renewable energy is such a great thing. I mean, we need that, right?’ Yes, but you don’t need to destroy Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center in the name of that, when there are other options.”

The fate of the Easley Project, Lake Tamarisk and Desert Center sits in the hands of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. The Independent reached out to Perez for an interview about the AC/DC situation, and received an email reply from Darin Schemmer, his communications director Darin Schemmer which stated: “Supervisor Perez has a public hearing on the proposed project, and so he … is not taking a position on the proposed project before residents have the opportunity in the public hearing to express their views on either side.”

This story was edited on March 27 to clarify the size of AC/DC’s submission to the county, and to correct two words in a quote from attorney Frank Angel.

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