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New Climate Law Sparks Battle in Shasta County

Assembly Bill 205 has rural Shasta County in a dust-up with the state, which was cemented last month with a lawsuit filed by county officials that challenges the California Energy Commission’s jurisdiction over the Fountain Wind Project, a nearly $500 million proposal that calls for 48 wind turbines to be built.

State officials are using their authority under the law, for the first time, to gain approval powers over a plan to build 48 giant wind turbines in Shasta County — powers typically held by local officials. In doing so, they’ve encountered not only opposition to the project but broader anger in a region known for its distaste of heavy-handed government and, in particular, Sacramento Democrats.

The new law, Assembly Bill 205, has rural Shasta County in a dust-up with the state, cemented last month with a lawsuit filed by county officials that challenges the California Energy Commission’s jurisdiction over the Fountain Wind Project.

“It’s the right thing for us to address this and fight back,” Board of Supervisors Chair Patrick Jones said during a public discussion of the matter. Yet the county’s latest fight with the state is distinct in crucial ways.

The region’s resistance to government has typically come from the right after a political shift sparked by pandemic-era frustrations and fueled by a group of activists that included anti-vaxxers, self-styled militia members and evangelicals. By contrast, the wind project, proposed in timberlands 35 miles east of Redding, has drawn opposition from across the spectrum, including the local Pit River Tribe, which is joining the county as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“All the people are on the same side now: the pagans, the Christians, the Democrats, the Trumpsters,” said Brandy McDaniels, a member of the Pit River Tribe. “Our community is bonded by our love of the area.”

The objections to the turbines — some of which would rise 600 feet — range considerably. They include doubts about the benefits of clean energy, anxieties over firefighting planes navigating the tall towers, and worries about disturbance to forests and wildlife.

The tribe helped forge the unlikely alliance against the nearly $500 million proposal because it doesn’t want to see its ancestral lands developed. Tribal members say the project could “erase” their people from history.

The concerns about the wind farm reflect the unpopularity of renewable energy ventures in many California communities that might host them — an aversion that threatens to slow the state’s push to replace planet-warming fossil fuels with clean sources of power. California officials have been frustrated by what’s often perceived as NIMBYism, and for developers, it’s a minefield.

“We need all the wind that we can get in the state to reach” California’s energy objectives, says Mark Lawlor, vice president of development for ConnectGen, the Houston company that wants to build the Fountain Wind Project. “There’s just not that many places that have suitable wind with all the right resources, like transmission.”

Newsom signed AB205 into law last year, in part to help the state reach its goal of generating all its power from carbon-free sources by 2045. The ambitious target is one of California’s marquee initiatives to combat climate change.

The new law, among other things, allows developers of wind and solar projects to apply to the California Energy Commission for streamlined review and authorization. That process has historically been handled by cities and counties.

The change in jurisdiction, which was done with little fanfare as part of California’s convoluted budget process, was urged by state officials who worried about too few renewable energy projects coming online. The move is one of several efforts by the Newsom administration to cut red tape for vital infrastructure such as power production.

While the state has met its interim objectives for zero-carbon electricity, getting about 37 percent of its energy from clean sources at last count (not including nuclear and large hydropower), the path to 100 percent remains uncertain. Increasing demand for electricity complicates matters.

“As we think about building really fast, doubling or tripling the (clean) electric grid, the challenge identified by the administration is the challenge of long permitting timelines,” said Siva Gunda, vice chair of the California Energy Commission.

Commission officials did not want to discuss specific power proposals or Shasta County’s lawsuit against the state. But Gunda acknowledged that, under AB205, local concerns will have to be weighed against the bigger and broader threat of climate change.

“No matter what kind of project we're trying to build, no matter where we’re trying to build it, there's always going to be potential benefits to the community but there will also be impacts,” he said. “This is a brand-new program. As we go through the process, the agency will learn.”

The proposal in Shasta County is among renewable energy plans that have been shot down locally, from wind turbines on the breezy ridges of Humboldt County to solar arrays in sunny Southern California. Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties have gone as far as banning renewable projects in certain places.

The Fountain Wind Project, near the foothill town of Montgomery Creek, was denied by Shasta County’s Planning Commission two years ago after hundreds of people poured into community meetings to protest. The Board of Supervisors, on appeal, also rebuffed the proposal. The supervisors have since put large swaths of the county off-limits to utility-scale wind power.

With the passage of AB205, however, ConnectGen petitioned the California Energy Commission to put the plan back in play, and this fall, the agency agreed, making it the first project to be taken up under the law.

The county’s suit against the state commission, filed in Shasta County Superior Court, argues that undoing local decisions and providing a developer a “second bite at the apple” is inappropriate and illegal.

Absent court intervention, the commission’s governing board is expected to make a decision on the Fountain Wind Project next summer. The timeline is within the expedited schedule set by AB205, which requires environmental reviews to be wrapped up in nine months.

The project would consist of four dozen remote turbines, down from 72 initially proposed, across 2,855 acres of private forest owned by Shasta Cascade Timberlands. It would generate up to 205 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply more than 80,000 homes, according to ConnectGen.

The site is within easy reach of existing transmission lines operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. A smaller wind project already runs across the adjacent Hatchet Ridge.

Lawlor, with ConnectGen, said the project would yield significant benefits for the county: hundreds of construction jobs and 10 to 20 permanent positions, $50 million in property tax revenue over 30 years and, despite what critics say, a reduction in fire danger with the company's plans to build fuel breaks and increase vegetation management.

Opponents generally say they’re not against green energy, just the location of the proposal. At the first hearing held by the California Energy Commission on the Fountain Wind Project two weeks ago, Jones, the Board of Supervisors chair, was clear about his disdain.

“You do not live here,” he told state officials. “You do not have the history, and you do not represent the people of Shasta County.”

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