Riverside County considers development fees on big desert solar power projects

File: A 32-megawatt Long Island photovoltaic array being built in the southeast corner of the Brokhaven National Laboratory site.
File: A 32-megawatt Long Island photovoltaic array being built in the southeast corner of the Brokhaven National Laboratory site. Brookhaven National Laboratory/Flickr (Creative Commons-licensed)

Riverside County supervisors have delayed a vote on a controversial fee on big solar energy farms. The proposed fee is meant to offset the potential effects of projects like this on roads, residents and the environment. Critics say it’ll impose a chill on the region’s hottest new industry.

Opponents deride it as the “Sun Tax,” although it’s actually the solar projects beneath the sun that are subject to the fee.

Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit says the fee is “a way to compensate the citizens of Riverside County for the unavoidable impacts of this coming wave.”

The fee would require solar energy providers to fork over 2 percent of their annual gross receipts. The county stands to reap millions of dollars.

Benoit says that money can go toward the maintenance of roads, bridges, wildlife habitat and other critical infrastructure. “That’s what we’re here to talk about, should we get something back for the citizens for this massive amount of solar in their backyards? One-hundred-and-eighteen-thousand acres mapped so far for solar projects. Massive seas of mirrors, troughs and towers spread across our desert. Huge landscapes and vistas semipermanently altered and lost from other possible uses.”

Solar companies slam the fee as a job killer. They worry it will dissuade firms from developing new projects or propel them into counties or states.

Two of the county’s largest solar projects in the pipeline could generate up to 1,500 construction jobs and more than $50 million in annual tax revenue.

“The 2 percent flat tax is certainly not a reasonable negotiated rent for use of county property," says Paul Gough. Gough is an attorney who represents the Independent Energy Producers Association.

“Evidence of the arbitrary nature of the 'Sun Tax' is found by comparing the $92,000 to run a transmission line along a county road with the $3.5 million fee under the sun tax," says Gough. "A 40-fold difference.”

Riverside County officials say the fee is in line with what established energy providers like Southern California Edison have paid for decades. County supervisors plan to amend the proposed fee and return for a vote in August.

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