While Inyo County is California’s second largest county by land area, it has the lowest population density of any county in the state at less than 2 people per square mile. With more than half of the county land area encompassed by Death Valley National Park (the lowest point in North America) and Mount Whitney (the highest point in the contiguous U.S.) on its eastern border, the county is home to a range of physical extremes. Inyo County leaders have begun to utilize its physical geography and natural assets for renewable energy development, capitalizing on its rural competitive advantage.
CHARTING A SOLAR ROADMAP
Inyo County has focused much of its renewable energy planning and development work on advancing solar energy, taking advantage of its abundant, year-round sunshine. Inyo County began to chart its path by developing its Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA), which received the “Planning Award of Merit for Green Community Planning” from the American Planning Association California Chapter in 2015. The REGPA identified several Solar Energy Development Areas (SEDA) where large-scale solar energy facilities are suitable, basing determinations on site studies and environmental reviews, and streamlined future permitting within these SEDAs.
The plan also called for increased small-scale solar, in which the county deployed a robust program— with support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Roadmap program— to encourage solar deployment and energy efficiency for residents and businesses. The county expedited the permitting process for small-scale solar systems, in addition to passing a solar-friendly zoning ordinance, which includes solar by-right zoning.
RENEWABLE ENERGY, CONSERVATION AND LAND USE
Complete with Death Valley National Park, high Sierra Nevada mountains and the scenic Owens Valley and River, Inyo County boasts a robust variety of natural diversity and beauty. In recognizing the importance of maintaining its renowned natural assets, the county has remained steadfast in ensuring that the development of solar energy systems would not negatively impact its sensitive natural and cultural resources (and their accompanying tourism dollars). Alongside the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment (REGPA), the county also prepared an environmental impact report to specifically evaluate any environmental consequences.
Community engagement has been an essential piece of the REGPA planning process which includes soliciting comments and developing guidelines for conserving sensitive lands and avoiding critical alterations to significant viewsheds. The Owens Valley Solar Energy Study was even a specific subsect of the REGPA to evaluate solar and conservation in more detail in this area. In completing the study, the county also engaged with the local tribal and agricultural communities to evaluate cultural and economic impacts. This deliberately public process is viewed as essential to the success of the plan overall, and the county notes little land use controversy and no lawsuits challenging the project to-date.
Inyo County also has had success in engaging the two utility companies operating in the county. In cooperation with Southern California Edison (SCE), the county has sought to create an Energy Efficiency Revolving Loan Fund program and is currently seeking implementation funds. A partnership with the City of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is also ongoing in order to further incentivize small-scale solar in the Owens Valley, where the Los Angeles Aqueduct has routed water to Los Angeles from Inyo County dating back to the early 20th century.
In recognition for these commitments and actions in removing local barriers to and advancing solar energy deployment, Inyo County received the SolSmart Bronze designation in the winter of 2016. Additionally, Inyo County placed second in NACo’s 2016 SolSmart County Challenge. These designations further solidify the county as a national leader in solar planning and permitting
This case study originally appeared in the NACo publication “Thinking SolSmart: County Strategies for Advancing Solar Deployment.“