- PHOTO COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY PLANNING AND BUILDING DEPARTMENT
- SOAKING UP SOME SUN : International solar power company SunPower wants to build thousands of acres of solar panels in the Carrizo Plains, much like this project the company built in Spain.
When SunPower, an international solar-power company, began shopping for a new public-relations team to market their SLO County project, they could have picked anyone. SunPower chose Chris Crotty, a consultant based in San Diego who also happens to be a popular political consultant for three SLO County supervisors.
SunPower originally hired local company Barnett Cox & Associates to handle PR work for the proposed California Valley Solar Ranch, one of three large projects solar companies are clamoring to build in the Carrizo Plains. Recently, however, SunPower switched from Barnett Cox & Associates to Crotty Consulting, Inc, which is the same company Supervisors Adam Hill, Bruce Gibson, and Jim Patterson hired during their election campaigns.
Crotty isn’t actively working on any SLO County campaigns, but he has in the past. He worked on the 2008 campaigns that put newcomer Hill in office and gave Patterson another term. Crotty said he’s speaking with Gibson about consulting for the supervisor’s re-election campaign and seemed confident he would land another consulting gig.
SunPower’s project is still early in the approval process. When it comes time to move it forward, however, the project can be approved by three votes from the Board of Supervisors. To some locals, it seems no coincidence that SunPower hired Crotty to run its local PR. Robin Bell, the founder of the Carrisa Alliance for Responsible Energy, is a skeptic.
“It certainly does seem like a buddy relationship,” Bell said.
Perhaps the largest hang-up for Bell and other people critical of the Carrizo solar projects is not that they’re against solar energy, but they want to prevent harm to the area’s wildlife. Potential threats to native animals have piqued the interest of groups ranging from the California Department Fish and Game to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If all three projects are approved under the original proposals, about 17.5 square miles of the Carrizo Plains will be covered by solar panels and related infrastructure. The sheer size of all the projects combined prompted an unprecedented study on how animal migration patterns could be affected.
SunPower Vice President Julie Blundon disregarded critics who believe Crotty was hired for political reasons. Instead, she said, Crotty was hired to soak-in public opinions on the project. Crotty is subcontracting with Cory Black, who recently opened a new office in SLO for his company Public Policy, Inc.
“One of the things that we take into consideration is having feet on the street,” Blundon said, “and in the case of [Crotty], he has a partner [Black] who is on the ground in San Luis Obispo.”
Still, why not stay with Barnett Cox & Associates or another local company? Blundon didn’t address such questions in depth, but reiterated that Crotty and Black were hired to take into account more public input to mold a better project.
Asked the same questions, Crotty laughed dryly at the fact that SunPower could have picked anyone in the world, but still chose him. He said he’s developed a grasp of the local population from his past consulting jobs. And while he’s not working with any local supervisors right now, he’s developed a relationship with them: “I’m certain the fact that I’ve worked for three of the five [supervisors] was not lost on SunPower.”
Renewable energy in SLO County is a big issue for several of the supervisors. There’s an obvious lean among supervisors to build solar projects in the county, which has detractors worried their concerns will be cast aside.
“My general take is that Chris Crotty and others who have worked for progressive candidates and for progressive causes have, I think, lost sight of the impacts and the real details of these types of projects and are finding comfort in the fact that these are so-called green projects,” said Anne McMahon, a community activist and Patterson’s former legislative assistant.
Hill, the only supervisor who could be reached for comment, said no one should worry about Crotty’s involvement with SunPower because he’s not sold yet on any of the proposed projects.
“Unlike some of the people who have sadly already formed an opposition to these projects, I have kept an open mind and will await the results of the [environmental impact reports] and staff reports before speaking in a specific manner,” Hill wrote in an e-mail.
Similar statements seem to have done little to quell nervous residents concerned with the Carrizo. There’s been no wrongdoing—and critics hope it stays that way. But by hiring Crotty, some fear SunPower may have laid the groundwork for a fast-tracked approval or, at the very least, sent a bad message to the public.
McMahon is worried: “I think it raises concerns about the integrity of the process when you have a PR consultant pushing a project who has a personal relationship with a majority of the Board of Supervisors who will be making a decision on that project.”
Contact Staff Writer Colin Rigley at [email protected].