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Riverside County approves 'sun tax' on big desert solar projects

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill into law requiring California to use more renewable sources of energy, such as the solar panels seen here, by 2020.
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
File photo: Solar panels

Riverside County supervisors approved a new fee on big solar farms Tuesday. Supporters say the annual fee will offset the effects of those projects on infrastructure and the environment, but solar developers say it will jeopardize projects already in the pipeline.

The annual mitigation fee will cost solar energy providers $450 an acre. Big solar developers could reduce that if they meet certain requirements like hiring more local workers. The county says the fee could generate millions of dollars for the upkeep of county roads, bridges and wildlife habitat.

Supervisors had wanted to impose a tax that equaled 2 percent of a solar company’s annual gross revenue. Solar developers balked, so the county revised the proposal to the per-acre fee.

"The industry suggested that we move to a per-acre charge, not the county. It was their position and we acceded to that," said Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit.

“If they can generate more kilowatts on that acre in 10 years, the fee does not go up," Benoit said. "We acceded to a property tax credit. And if the county suspends the work on one of these projects, we’ll suspend the fee.”

But industry leaders and their supporters still wanted more time to study the proposal. Opponents like Shannon Eddy deride the per-acre fee as a “sun tax.”

“We understand the level of fear that permeates the county’s economic landscape," Eddy said. Eddy is executive director of the Large-scale Solar Association, an industry advocacy group. She worries that the fees will stifle job creation and drive renewable energy projects to other states and counties.

“You cannot expect to balance the budget of the county on the backs of the very industry that could serve as the lifeblood for a new economy in Riverside County," Eddy said.

Eddy belonged to a chorus of critics that also included solar industry attorneys, consultants, union electricians and local leaders like Joseph DeConinck. “If you lose these projects, which they could go, you know it could hurt a lot of people.”

He’s the mayor of Blythe, one desert town that could get a big economic boost from large-scale solar projects. “Blythe is not opposed (to the fees) if you can come to agreement with the solar people. If a deal is made, we’re gonna have the most impacts out there.”

In addition to the new mitigation fee, Supervisor Benoit called for the creation of a new blueprint to better plan for the future of solar development in Riverside County.