The promise of clean and cheap solar energy is getting a second look in California, where utilities are required to get a third of their power from renewable power by 2020. But after millions in tax breaks and handouts, the industry's honeymoon is over with some counties and ratepayers, as the expected jobs, savings and revenue have not materialized.
California's Riverside County is producing more solar energy than anywhere in the U.S., with close to a dozen solar plants either online or proposed.
"On the face of it, it looks like a good deal. They talk about all these huge jobs and long-term benefits to the county. The truth is, it's a very short term," Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said. "We're going to be carrying the burden of having these types of facilities for decades to come, and because of the incentives that have been provided by federal and state government, there's virtually nothing left for the county government or the local people to get benefit back after the small number of construction jobs are gone."
Unlike Riverside's 500 megawatt natural gas-fired facility, which pays $6 million a year in property taxes, a solar plant being built a few miles away will pay next to nothing, just $96,000. When Riverside balked at its own upfront infrastructure costs and tried to impose an impact fee, the industry sued.
The industry stands by that response.
"The Riverside County tax is so high that it makes the county anti-competitive for solar," Shannon Eddy of the Large Scale Solar Association said. "The reason that we decided to litigate the Riverside County tax is because it was an illegal tax and it was in direct violation of Proposition 26." That proposition says government cannot impose a fee that acts like a tax.
Riverside said it deserves something, considering the hundreds of square miles of land it is giving up to be covered by mirrors and solar panels.
"From the perspective of the company, it may be a billion-dollar investment. But for the most part, that's not money that's coming back to the county that's going to be the host," Benoit said. "So yeah, I appreciate the investment. But I think they kind of overstate the number of jobs and how long they'll be here for their own PR reasons.
"But the long-term effect is clear: We're going to have a desert that's dramatically changed and forever off the tax roll and out of use for any other recreational or other purpose."
While the industry admits it only takes a handful of people to run a solar plant and many panels are produced overseas, Eddy says, "The reality is that we're bringing jobs, again, to some of the most economically depressed counties in the state. These are much-needed jobs. We've got thousands and thousands of construction jobs that are going to be attributed directly to the construction of these solar projects."
Solar also promised to be a cheap source of power, fueled by the sun. What the industry didn't say is the technology only converts a fraction of the sun's energy, and the intermittent nature of sunshine does not produce the power promised.
And Stanford economist Frank Wolak, a California energy expert, said solar could boost consumer energy bills up to 50 percent, a finding similar to the state Public Utilities Commission. Solar power from two recently approved plants range from $100 to $200 per megawatt hour, at least 8 times higher than the $16 consumers pay for natural gas.
"It's probably 50 percent more (than coal or natural gas) today," Benoit said. "Five years ago, it was probably a 100 or 150 percent more costly to generate a kilowatt with solar. The cost of these panels has come down dramatically. But still, getting back to the old equation, do you want to spend a little bit more to be green? And the legislature and the governor in California have said clearly, we're going to do that."
Answering critics at a solar ribbon-cutting earlier this year, Gov. Jerry Brown laid down the gauntlet, affirming his commitment to solar energy and saying he would "crush" opponents of solar.
"There are going to be screw-ups. There are going to be bankruptcies. There'll be indictments and there'll be deaths. But we're going to keep going - and nothing's going to stop me," Brown said.
While solar has been painted an environmentally clean power, especially when compared with carbon-based fossil fuels, it is not without impact and growing opposition among preservationists.
"There's been a policy to fast-track and install these utility-scale renewable energy installations that are on the scale of five to 10,000 acres each," said April Sall of the Wildlands Conservancy. "We've seen thousands of acres of the desert bladed and now undergoing utility-style construction to basically convert that from pristine habitat that included those sensitive plants and animals, to becoming potentially a dust bowl."
The two largest green groups in the U.S., the Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council, have remained silent on the impact of Big Solar on land use and endangered species, which is not so with gas, oil or coal. Sall and other local environmental groups say the Washington-based organizations see climate change as a bigger threat and therefore won't get involved.
The industry says no energy source is without negative impacts, but solar tries to minimize its footprint and like other technologies pay mitigation costs when it must relocate endangered species to make way for a plant.
"We're building the projects in the most environmentally sensitive way possible. These projects go through the exact same environmental laws that any kind of development goes through," Eddy, the industry representative, said. "But we have to keep coming back to the truth, that what we're doing is, we're reducing climate impacts. We're reducing emissions from natural gas facilities that are being offset by this. We're contributing again hundreds of millions of dollars to state and county coffers."