On Friday, the day after The Roadrunner reported that the County hadn’t yet approved the 140 Megawatt Valley Center Battery Storage project, the County Director of Planning, Mark Wardlaw—as is his habit—overruled the VC Planning Group, which had recommended against—and approved the project.
On Monday the planning group, contemplating an appeal of Wardlaw’s decision, decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Especially when discretion comes with a check for $150,000 that the developer, Valley Center Battery Storage promised to pay to the VC Fire Foundation to benefit a fire station on Cole Grade Road.
Jim Bernet, president of the Foundation, appealed to the group to not appeal. He said he had researched the project’s safety, something that most opposition to the facility has coalesced around. “Over the past week or so I spoke to about ten in our community to try to learn more about the safety and security of this project, including SDG&E, the VC Fire department and my neighbors in Woods Valley. From my perspective, Terra Gen will be a great partner.”
Bernet continued, “Terra Gen has already made an unconditional donation of $25,000 to benefit the fire department. Looking forward into the future Terra Gen has agreed to make an additional donation in support of our community. A commitment if they can proceed they will make a minimum donation of $150,000 to the fire department. That is made regardless of the passage of Measure AA. If it does fail we will be given a donation of $250,000. We have a minimum commitment of $150,000 if it passes.”
Bernet concluded, “My request is to ask the planning group not to appeal the approval.”
Dr. Matt Matthews, the group member charged with guiding the project through the process, and who opposes it as being potentially too dangerous, declared, “I’m concerned of the conflict of interest of in the midst of the approval process. It reeks a little bit of buying support.”
Planning Group Chairman Dee Chavez Harmes said she shared, “the concern that Dr. Matthews has about the conflict of interest” so she contacted County Counsel, which gives legal advice to planning groups on such matters.
She was told that since they already met and voted to oppose the project, there was no conflict of interest. “This project was already presented to the planning group and was voted on and submitted. The County took our advice and elected to approve of the project in spite of our concerns. So the project is already approved as of last Friday. The information Mr. Bernet has provided tonight is more information relating to lithium ion batteries,” she said.
Mark Turner, who has represented the developer from the beginning, said, “The first conversation I had with Mr. Bernet was this weekend after the County approved the project. We have always looked for a way to partner with the community. I’ve heard a lot of expressions of concern that the community perceives no tangible benefit from this project. This is a direct contribution to the community and addresses fire safety. We will facilitate the new fire station, which will be nearer to us than the other two. It’s something that is allowed and above board and I think it is a way for the community to benefit from projects.”
Turner addressed the question of “benefit” to VC. “In addition to this benefit we are providing reliability services to the region. It is designed to firm the grid and help prevent the blackouts we have seen in the last months as a result of the heat wave and the fires. The problem isn’t just an inconvenience to have an outage, it’s a safety issue.”
Governor Gavin Newsom has issued an executive order to ease the approval of battery storage projects by 2021. “We are one of the few projects advanced enough to be online by 2021. That is a tangible benefit to you. It does provide tax benefits” it will pay $250,000 in property taxes annually, said Turner. “During construction it will create $40 million in jobs and indirect benefits.”
Dr. Matthews retorted that “surrounding properties will have a reduction in the value of their land, so I’m not sure there is a net gain in terms of property taxes to the County.”
Mrs. Harmes said a third fire house would reduce fire insurance premiums for many residents. She originally opposed it because it provided no specific benefit to the community. “I was adamant about an appeal because Valley Center was taking all the risks with no mitigation or gain.” If after the nearly 1,000 homes are built, and she is someday in a car accident, her chances are less. “The Lilac fire station won’t be able to handle all that. We need two more fire stations for the growth we are seeing. That’s the thought that popped into my mind.”
Since the group already voted and lost, “I would like to get something out of this losing situation. The fire station seems like a big win out of something that we have already lost already,” she said.
Bernet added, “The less they [Terra Gen] have to spend on defense or delays it frees up money.”
VC Fire Chief Joe Napier, who was asked to speak, emphasized “The district is a complete and separate entity from the foundation which is a charitable arm that serves the needs of a fire district that operates on a budget but has no extra funding.”
Note: If Terra Gen donates $250,000 that does not prevent the district from needing the passage of Measure AA to be able to staff the new station.
Chief Napier said, “AA brings firefighters a living wage and benefits a pension—which they have none. Donations can’t be applied to wages or benefits. The fire [foundation] board will decide where Mr. Turner’s donation will go to. If they specify the fire station that’s where it would go. If the board decides the impact of the battery plant deserves an additional apparatus [i.e. fire engine] that might apply.” Napier added, “The donation of the funds from the foundation can’t go to pay for salaries or benefits, it can only go to one time expenditures.”
Terra Gen will also pay regular benefit fees and taxes from the CFD (community facilities district) it is part of. “That’s the tax benefit,” he said. He added, “This is the first time I’m meeting Mark Turner. The first time I’m hearing about this donation.”
He said that never before has a commercial entity, “stepped up to make a donation. All the solar farms, none of them stepped up. I was actually approached by one of them, Grainger, who asked to buy themselves out of the CFD for a one-time charge. I think this is a great gesture on the part of Mr. Turner to be a part of this community.”
Planning Vice Chairman Kevin Smith said, “This project will benefit the state in the times we most need it. People ask what benefits VC? On a technological basis this benefits the same way that having a power company like SDG&E benefits us. We are part of the state and as we saw last week, we’re running at the margin on times that we have sustained hot days.”
Smith added, “We saw in the paper that the water department was asked to turn on their power plants. That’s the same benefit this facility would provide. If we have this, maybe we won’t have to run gas generators. It’s another part of the margin. As California moves away from non-renewable energy, facilities like this will be a huge contributor to the safety of the state. By benefiting the region, it benefits Valley Center.”
Planning Group member William Del Pilar said, “This is how business and politics work. My issue, in terms of the safety, is that there is an asterisk where we live that says we are fire country. When you have such an asterisk there are some projects that shouldn’t come into your community. On paper everything is great—but there is point zero zero percent chance that something will happen. I view this as a danger.”
Dr. Matthews made the motion to appeal, with objections being lack of benefit and poor project design. The vote was 8 noes and 3 yes votes, so the motion failed.