Landscape near Jacumba Hot Sprints
The landscape near Jacumba Hot Springs in East San Diego County. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Board of Supervisors voted Wednesday to advance a 600-acre solar panel project in Jacumba Hot Springs, a desert community located in southeastern San Diego County, despite opposition by numerous residents and the co-owner of a local resort.

The board voted 5-0 to approve a conditional use permit for BayWa r.e, which is planning to develop JVR Energy Park east of Jacumba Hot Springs and north of the U.S./Mexico international border.

When fully operational, the solar farm will produce 90 megawatts of power and deliver it to an existing San Diego Gas & Electric transmission line. According to the county Planning and Services Department, it will power 57,000 homes, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 508,000 metric tons and employ up to 500 people for the construction phase, as part of a project labor agreement.

The developer will have to build a buffer zone of at least 400 feet between the project and Jacumba Hot Springs, contribute $4 million toward community services and set aside a 435-acre habitat preserve.

Some residents, including the Jacumba Community Sponsor Group, wanted the size of the project — which includes a 70-megawatt energy storage facility to be fueled by lithium batteries — reduced by half.

Work could begin early next year on the project, which the county Planning Commission approved July 9 in a 5-2 vote. According to the Land Use and Environment department, a firm start date for the project will “depend on the applicant fulfilling the conditions of approval of their Major Use Permit and obtaining all necessary grading and building permits.”

Based in Munich, Germany, BayWa r.e also has an office in Irvine. The company has a usage agreement with San Diego Community Power, a community energy choice program comprising five cities: Chula Vista, Encinitas, Imperial Beach, La Mesa and San Diego.

During a 3 1/2-hour public hearing before the Board of Supervisors, dozens of Jacumba residents said the energy park will destroy their town’s character, or not offer any long-term employment. Many wore “Save Jacumba” buttons or yellow sashes. They also argued that their region already has its share of massive energy facilities, including the Sunrise Powerlink.

Jeff Osborne, one of the owners of the Jacumba Hot Springs Resort, said the project “would never, ever be proposed in an affluent community of San Diego. This project should have never gotten this far, and deserves to go in the trash can today. Please save Jacumba.”

Osborne said that along with revitalizing parts of Jacumba, he and his resort partners envision opening a hotel and creating 40 permanent jobs.

Cherry Diefenbach, another Jacumba resident, said the solar project will destroy scenic vistas and historic buildings, cover the best farm land and be a noise hazard.

“Jacumba’s one of the best-kept secrets in the East County,” as it offers affordable homes in a beautiful landscape, she added.

Geoff Fallon, an executive vice president at Baywa r.e, said the park will generate enough clean, reliable solar to power tens of thousands of homes in San Diego County and offer “significant benefits for the region and the planet.”

Fallon added that his company fully intends to engage with Jacumba residents “on how we can be a good neighbor,” including by funding a business innovation district. “This is going to be a big construction project; we’re going to be there for 35 years,” Fallon told supervisors. “We’re willing to commit to this. I stand here humbled by the opposition’s perspective.”

The project also received support from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Climate Action Campaign and labor groups, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 569.

IBEW member Crisitna Marquez said that along with producing cleaner energy, the project will help journeyman electricians like her and prepare them for a career.

Bill Carnahan, interim CEO of San Diego Community Power, told supervisors that the solar project will improve grid resiliency and reduce the harmful effects of climate change.

Several supervisors said that while they understood residents’ opposition, the county needed to move forward with efforts to combat climate change.

“Our planet is on fire, and we cannot delay action (on more renewables),” said board Chairman Nathan Fletcher.

While rooftop solar in more urban areas is a good idea, the county isn’t in a position to do that today, Fletcher said, adding there’s only a set amount of projects the county can approve.

Supervisor Joel Anderson, in whose district the project will be located, stressed that BayWa r.e must have an equity plan for residents. Too often, “we’ve allowed affluent communities to step on weaker communities, and it’s not right,” he said.

Although he voted in favor of the solar project, Supervisor Jim Desmond said he wished there would have been more time for negotiations between Jacumba residents and BayWa r.e to ensure the community benefits as much as possible.

“We can’t make one community bear all of the burdens for everyone else,” he added.

Supervisor Terra Lawson-Remer said while climate needs are existential, BayWa r.e has a responsibility to reduce impacts, and that means making communities whole, even if not everyone will be happy with the final project.

Updated at 5:13 p.m. August 18, 2021

City News Service contributed to this article.