State considering taking solar project permitting power away from counties, but latest version of energy bill drops that controversial power grab

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BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Gavin Newsom inherited a progressive agenda on climate change from his predecessor when he was sworn in as California governor two and a half years ago, and since that time he has only accelerated the state’s efforts to be a global leader in the quest to minimize greenhouse gases.

At the top of his climate change to-do list: Completely dismantle, by 2045, all oil and gas production in the state — and fill the energy void with, among other things, renewables. In doing so, he has challenged Kern County, which is the state leader in both industries.

Newsom has taken a number of controversial steps as he works to achieve his environmental goals, but his latest has Kern County officials concerned: The governor has indicated that he would like to take land-use planning authority, as it pertains to renewable energy projects, out of the hands of county officials across California — and give it exclusively to state government.

The latest version of the state energy bill does not, however, contain that language., Although that’s good news, county officials say they won’t be able to completely relax until the bill is officially enacted at midnight Wednesday and the power grab threat is over.

The long-running tug-of-war over oil’s future in California started in November 2019 when Newsom imposed a moratorium on all new hydraulic fracking and steam-injected drilling in the state  — the vast majority of which takes place in Kern County.

State Sen. Shannon Grove of Bakersfield responded in January of this year by asking supervisors to halt all grid-scale solar projects in Kern County — and in so doing disrupt the governor’s plan to replace oil and gas with solar. 

The supervisors did not act on her proposal — in fact just last month they approved a 270-megawatt solar and battery storage project near Rosamond that will generate $637 million in annual property tax revenue, along with other significant startup fees.  The 1300-acre project, Raceway 2.0, is just south of Willow Springs International Raceway, near the L.A. County border.

But supervisors did reiterate their concerns about the solar property tax exclusion that deprives the Kern County general fund of an estimated 19.9 million dollars in annual tax revenue — and has been hurting the county’s bottom line since the solar exclusion was approved by voters in 1980. The tax exclusion is set to expire in 2025 and the trade association representing California solar energy companies — rather than seeking an extension Kern County would likely oppose — has expressed a willingness to negotiate what it calls a partial exclusion. A trade association representative, asked how large an exclusion they may seek, did not respond to a request for comment from KGET.

If the tax exclusion remains, in whole or in part, expect the Kern County Supervisors to again consider creating a new fee, called the Kern Renewable Energy Resiliency Fund — essentially a county tax on solar projects  — to compensate for lost property tax revenue.

And now the governor’s latest volley. In late August Newsom floated legislation that would authorize a state agency, the California Energy Commission, to start issuing permits for new wind and solar energy projects — a move that would cut county governments completely out of the picture. The bill’s preliminary draft — it’s a so-called trailer that would be attached to another, potentially unrelated piece of legislation — circulated for a week in the state legislature, apparently in search of a legislative sponsor.

Kern County officials were outraged at the government’s efforts to take away local control, as well other county governments, reportedly, and were researching the bill’s constitutionality.

Jesse Frederick of the engineering firm WZI Inc. said putting the permitting process for local solar projects into the hands of the California Energy Commission would be a disaster for everyone concerned — county government, solar power companies, consumers, even the state agency itself.

“Oh, this is politics and no efficiency,” he said. “I think it will delay good projects, it may accelerate bad projects, it will give us higher rates, less reliability, and gas lines. And that’s where we’re headed. If we’re all OK with that … I’m not going to miss a meal. I’m not worried so much about me and anybody else in my position. I’m worried more about people who are on the fringe, on the margins.”

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