‘We have all the energy we need.” That’s what a handful of Ramonans are claiming these days as they wage a battle against solar power in their neck of the woods.
Too much of a clean, green, renewable thing? Ken Brennecke, a former computer programmer who runs a bamboo-growing business at the south end of the Ramona Valley, thinks so. The alleged surplus, he claims, is just one of a handful of legitimate reasons to oppose the Sol Orchard project, which is slated to go in on currently vacant parts of a nearby hog farm.
“Right now, there are 3.5 more times solar projects on the slate than is necessary to achieve the goal of 33.33 percent energy by renewable resources. That means that roughly 100 percent of all our energy needs in California could be met by solar. So then, why would you need more of them?” On the other hand, gushes Brennecke, “Now that they’re fracking out of their gourds in the Midwest, we’re going to be a producer of natural gas in this country. For the next 200 years, we are going to have ample fossil fuels.” But as anti-solar activists admit, it’s more about aesthetics than energy. For Brennecke and his fellow travelers, who view solar panels on Mark Bousema’s porcine property as anything but “green,” the operative term is “industrial blight.”
In 2011, Sol Orchard, a small solar-energy firm based in Carmel, California, approached Bousema about leasing part of his 110-acre parcel for a solar-power project. Bousema, who raises pigs for medical research under the banner of S&S Farms, agreed to a 25-year lease that entailed the erection of solar panels on 42.7 acres. On July 7, 2011, Sol Orchard made an introductory presentation to the Ramona Community Planning Group (an advisory group that lacks authority), outlining the 7.5-megawatt proposal. In support of the project, they cited a recently enacted law in California mandating that in-state utility companies obtain at least one-third of their energy from renewable sources. They were met by strident opposition from about ten locals who decried what they termed “visual blight” and the “loss of phenomenal farmland.”
By the end of 2011, and after several more hearings, Sol Orchard agreed to landscaping changes suggested by the Ramona Design Review Board, a group whose input is not required by San Diego County.
In January 2012, despite these aesthetic concessions, Ramona planners, who purport to represent the unincorporated area’s approximately 45,000 residents, voted to reject the project.
On October 19, 2012, the San Diego County Planning Commission voted 6–1 to approve a “major use permit” requiring that Sol Orchard provide a buffer zone and additional screening. At that hearing, several members of the Ramona Community Planning Group spoke in opposition, lambasting the project as “an industrial use not in harmony, bulk, or scale with the rest of the area.”
And what of the area?
In order to gather in the sights, scents, and sounds of Ramona, I drive northeast from Poway to Dye Road, where an ozone-suffused afternoon finds me at the south end of the Ramona Valley. Here, in the heart of rural, ramshackle Southern California, I pass hardscrabble ranches with horses grazing. Horse trailers and dilapidated outbuildings dot rambling parcels; at the rear of one lot, next to a dusty shack and a pile of tires, sits a boat tilted onto its side. In the distance, scattered large homes suggest more prosperity in a different neighborhood.
The smell of ammonia hits me high in the nose just before I see the “fresh eggs” sign. On Warnock, where remnants of an old dairy sit in the haze, there are rusty silos, cows that may or may not be contented, and propane tanks — earmarks of downscale ruritania.
As for the site of the future solar farm, it’s a rock-studded pasture with a handful of cows lounging near a cluster of white buildings where swine reside. (The only sound is a siren from a sheriff’s cruiser on San Vicente road; maybe the pigs are napping.) It’s bare land, hard by a desiccated stand of eucalyptus bisected by a road that leads to Velocity Paintball. Across the road sits a wood-framed house, faded mauve, and a few blocks away there are shanties with broken aluminum siding and rusty roofs. As I approach downtown Ramona, I see a mobile-home park with a bulbous old propane tank parked out front, looming like a big white submarine. It reads “Ramona Terrace Estates” and has a smiley face painted on it. There are power lines everywhere.
According to Jerry Myers, a retiree who moved to Ramona in 1971 to breed horses, this is a rural paradise that will be despoiled by Sol Orchard’s project. “Why don’t we go put it in a national park?” he fumes.
I challenge Myers’s analogy. “Does Ramona really have the beauty of a national park?”
“You bet,” he says. “We’ve got the mountains on both sides, we’ve got the little houses out there, cows out there grazing. We’ve got the dairy down the street producing milk for people’s consumption, an egg ranch over on the other side of the valley producing eggs for the people. Got the dog kennel up in the back.”
Will Pritchard, project manager for Sol Orchard, says, “It’s a pretty gritty agricultural area. It’s not wide-open spaces like, say, Santa Ysabel.” Sounding a diplomatic note, he adds, “Everything has its own charm, and [the things that] make it nice, we’re not going to be messing with. Neighbors who look across the road will still see 500–1000 feet of open space with cows on it, a little solar, and a nice hill range behind it. That’s not changing.”
Although the specter of aesthetic degradation is the opposition’s leitmotif, Brennecke is candid about tactics. “What you try to do is throw as many arguments [as you can] up against the wall and see what sticks. There are about five different objections.”
Brennecke claims that the site’s topography presents inherent, potential safety hazards that Sol Orchard’s plans fail to adequately mitigate. “The 100-year flood plain overlaps their facility. Since 1978 there have been three rain events that have put enough water on that land to make the water flow over Ramona streets. Their facility will be at risk, because electrical energy is gathered and then goes into an underground conduit, where it could flood. Someone could get electrocuted. Another problem is the huge eucalyptus grove to the east. I don’t think it’s ever burned. The Witch Creek Fire missed their proposed site by 300 feet to the south.”