Mobile carriers get a three year exemption from environmental reviews and local restrictions on emergency generators in California

6 October 2020 by Steve Blum
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Emergency power generators installed near macro cell sites everywhere in California won’t have to go through a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review and must be approved by local governments within 60 days if the paperwork is in order, under a bill just signed into law by governor Gavin Newsom. This exemption begins on January 1, 2021 and expires three years later, unless the legislature extends it.

Assembly bill 2421, carried by Bill Quirk (D – Alameda), says that “an emergency standby generator that serves a macro cell site as a permitted use and requires a local agency to review a permit request to install an emergency standby generator on an administrative, nondiscretionary basis”, if it meets certain requirements, according to the bill analysis prepared by the senate’s governance and finance committee. A city or county has 60 days to act on an application, assuming it’s complete. If the deadline is missed, the permit is automatically “deemed approved” and the applicant – mobile carrier or cell site company – can go ahead and install the generator without further permission.

A generator, including a fuel tank up to 300 gallons, can be as big as 250 cubic feet – think of a box 10 feet by 5 feet by 5 feet – and can be as far away as 100 feet from an existing macro tower or base station. Generators or other power supplies intended for small cells, DAS or rooftop sites aren’t included in the exemption – local governments retain discretionary authority over those.

Given the continuing problem of wildfires and power shut offs, and the California Public Utilities Commission’s new back up power requirements for wireless operators, AB 2421 had a smooth ride. It received broad, bipartisan support in the legislature and only a smattering of concerns from lobbyists for cities and counties, which usually oppose such exemptions. The only significant opposition came from the Communications Workers of America union, which cited vague concerns about “the long-term health of the communications grid”. It’s worth noting that unions are notorious for using – abusing – CEQA to block projects when they don’t get a big enough piece of the action.