Defense Contractors Objections To California Desert Solar Plant Overruled

The recent round of Wikileaks have stirred my patriotic ire, so when I recently learned of Northrop Grumman’s sudden objection to a proposed Mojave Desert mega watt solar plant north of Los Angeles I initially reacted with uncharacteristic sympathy for the contractor.

Since the solar plant proposal has gone through two years of hearings I could not help but wonder why they would object now and what is their objection or should I say true objection? I am personally familiar with that area of the Mojave Desert where the solar plant is proposed and to say it is remote is an understatement.

The battle has pitted Northrop Grumman Systems Corp., a giant defense contractor that operates a sensitive radar testing center in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles, against a proposed solar power plant project widely supported by local residents and business groups in a report written by Solar Home and Business Journal. Solar won.

During a meeting Tuesday of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Northrop Grumman, developer of radar-evading stealth technology used by the B-2 bomber and other military aircraft, absorbed some blistering criticism from Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, a conservative Republican known for his strong support of the U.S. military.

Northrop Grumman only recently filed voluminous documents in opposition to plans for AV Solar Ranch One, a 230-megawatt photovoltaic power complex planned by First Solar Inc. in the sunny Antelope Valley, about 90 miles by road north of downtown Los Angeles.

An attorney representing Northrop Grumman told the Board of Supervisors that the defense contractor only learned Sept. 16 about the proposed solar project, which, according to First Solar, has been the subject of more than 100 community meetings in the Antelope Valley. The solar proposal also has been detailed in media reports for about two years.

AV Solar Ranch One is one of many solar power plants proposed or recently approved throughout the Mojave Desert, which also is the home of vast military installations that have already installed or have solar installers planning significant solar projects of their own. U.S. military representatives have been avid supporters of solar development not just in the region but at bases and installations throughout the nation and world.

Northrop Grumman has complained that AV Solar Ranch One and a planned 200-megawatt solar plant proposed nearby, called the Rosamond Solar Project, would interfere with its Tejon radar cross-section test center, which occupies about 1,400 acres 10 miles northwest of the planned AV Solar Ranch One and about 9 miles west of the Rosamond project. The Rosamond photovoltaic complex is being developed by Sempra Generation, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, also the parent of San Diego Gas & Electric Co.

The Rosamond Solar Project is just over the county line in Kern County, whose Board of Supervisors approved the plans for that project earlier this month, also after late-stage objections from Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman’s electromagnetic radar test center, which employs 15 people, is one of three similar facilities operated by different aerospace companies in the Antelope Valley region, where numerous solar projects have been proposed in recent years.

The Northrop Grumman Tejon site includes several tall pylons on which multi-ton test models can be hung to assess their radar reflectivity. The company in its filings has referred to a “keyhole” area extending well beyond its own land holdings that it says is important to the technological processes of radar testing. The Tejon radar test site was built in the late 1970s, and some of the contracting work done there has been classified as secret.

In Kern County, shortly before a hearing on the Rosamond Solar Project, reports say, Northrop Grumman submitted more than 900 written pages and links to thousands of pages of computer documents in opposition to that solar plan. “Northrop Grumman’s concern is that the addition of the solar project would cause radar scattering that would interfere with their facility’s ability to sense and measure objects on that range,” according to a report filed by the Kern County planning staff after the corporation’s objections were received.

The Kern County staff was advised by U.S. military officials that the Northrop Grumman test center was not a Department of Defense facility but a private contractor, and that the military considered the company’s objections to the solar plant to be a private matter outside its purview. The Kern County staff advised the Board of Supervisors that although Northrop Grumman had identified a “keyhole” area as important to its radar testing, it “does not have ownership or control of the properties within the keyhole area, has made no offers to acquire the property, or compensate the residential property owner(s) for the potential loss of solar jobs within their identified keyhole map.”

Kern County’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to approve the Rosamond Solar Project on Nov. 9. At the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 23, Leonard Figueroa, an engineering director at Northrop Grumman, said that if the AV Solar Ranch One project is built, “the radar returns will be like stadium lights behind a candle.” The solar project, which is to consist of rows of modules up to about 10 feet off the ground, would straddle Route 138 just north of a popular tourist destination, the Antelope Valley California Poppy State Reserve.

Mr. Antonovich, whose district extends out to desert military installations and proposed solar sites, as well as areas within the Los Angeles basin that have high levels of air pollution, aimed withering criticism at Northrop Grumman, saying it “submitted a pile of documents with objections to the solar plant ” on Friday at 4 p.m., despite public notifications of the solar project months earlier. He also referred to late-stage objections the company delivered to the Kern County Board of Supervisors.

The supervisor told an attorney for Northrop Grumman that the California solar project has been under public review since early 2010, with coverage in the media, but “the county received an 8-inch-thick pile of documents from you on Friday.” The attorney representing Northrop Grumman repeated that the company was not aware of the solar proposal until Sept. 16 and that it needed time to prepare a response.

Frank De Rosa, a senior vice president of First Solar, said the solar company has been working on the project for more than two years, holding more than 100 community meetings “in a very public process.” He said the solar energy company is “on the front line” in competing in the global race for cleaner-energy development.

Melvin Layne, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, told the county supervisors that First Solar “has set the standard for community participation.”

Because of the Antelope Valley’s valuable sun resource, Mr. Layne said, solar companies representing about $10 billion in potential economic development are considering the area. According to Los Angeles County, Kern County and San Bernardino County records, many other solar proposals have been filed in the Antelope Valley in addition to AV Solar Ranch One and the Rosamond Solar Project.

“We believe that this is the highest and best use of the property,” said Mr. Layne, noting the Antelope Valley’s 17 percent unemployment rate and the jobs that solar development will create. In addition, he said, residents in the basin portion of Los Angeles County will benefit from the power to be produced. The Antelope Valley, in what is locally known as the high desert, is separated from the rest of Los Angeles County by a wall of mountains and has much cleaner air than the L.A. basin.

The largest proposed Antelope Valley solar projects range up to 650 megawatts of production capacity. A high-capacity Southern California Edison transmission line is under construction to carry future commercial solar and wind energy from the Antelope Valley to the Inland Valley region east of Los Angeles, where air pollution is a problem and where auto dealerships are about to take deliveries of plug-in vehicles.

In addition to the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, the regional Chamber of Commerce, the nearby cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, and overseers of the poppy reserve are said to have endorsed the solar plan. Officials from sprawling Edwards Air Force Base, whose boundary begins about 15 miles east of the proposed solar project, have not filed any objections, nor have officials from the China Lake Naval Weapons Center farther north.

The nearest residential area to AV Solar Ranch One is an unincorporated community of about 2,800 residents called Antelope Acres. Vickie Nelson, president of the town council, said the council voted in 2009 to support the solar project which poses no safety risk and has not changed its position.

Mr. Antonovich quoted from a letter from David Belote, director of the Department of Defense Energy Siting Clearinghouse, saying that the Northrop Grumman objections were a “private matter” and that the “Department of Defense has no position” on the solar project.

He then moved to close the hearing on the proposed objection to the construction of the solar plant and call for a vote stipulating that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors intends to approve the solar project and to deny the Northrop Grumman appeal. Without further comment, the board approved the motion unanimously.