Mega PV Projects Face Critter Concerns

By Published On: February 11, 2011

Developers are scaling back two massive photovoltaic projects slated for the transmission-rich Carrizo Plain in eastern San Luis Obispo County to mitigate biological impacts. But even if the county approves them they are likely to face legal challenges. “This is the last bastion of highly threatened and endangered species,” said Ileene Anderson, Center for Biological Diversity biologist, speaking of the land slated for the 800 MW of photovoltaic infrastructure. At issue are First Solar’s plan to build a 550 MW thin film photovoltaic plant and SunPower’s proposed 250 MW solar tracking project. County approval is expected for both in the weeks ahead. Power from both projects is under contract with Pacific Gas & Electric. The Carrizo Plain is considered optimal for solar projects because it is flat and one of the sunniest areas of California—with an average 315 days of sunshine a year. In addition, the ready availability of high voltage lines running from the Diablo nuclear power plant make it easy to feed the solar energy into the grid without building new lines. However, the two projects would impact threatened species, including the San Joaquin fox, giant kangaroo rat, and Blunt-nosed Leopard Lizard. Consequently, the solar developers downsized their project footprints and agreed to set aside thousands of acres for conservation enhancement. First Solar’s Topaz project shrunk from 6,500 acres to 3,500 acres. Three quarters of the project currently is to be built on former cropland, and the rest on grasslands. First Solar also agreed to provide 10,000 acres of offsite mitigation land to protect San Joaquin foxes and other animal and plant species that would be affected by the project, said Alan Bernheimer, First Solar spokesperson. SunPower’s California Valley Solar Ranch tracking project was downsized from 1,966 acres of previously farmed land to 1,500 acres. Acres set aside for conservation increased to 3,185 from 2,400 acres—largely to address concerns about the giant kangaroo rat. “Our current design impacts less than 9 percent of the [rat] precincts inside the array boundaries,” said Ingrid Ekstrom, SunPower spokesperson. But the project revisions and fact the land was formerly farmed do not make the solar projects attractive, according to Anderson. Instead, the Center for Biological Diversity wants solar development in that part of the state to be concentrated in the Westlands Water District, according to Anderson. There, selenium contamination makes the “brownfield” area desirable for solar projects because of the dearth of species. The San Luis Obispo County projects are not the only ones in the area. To the northeast, Solargen’s 399 MW Panoche solar project in San Benito County won approval after being downsized from 420 MW to mitigate significant environmental impacts. The Panoche site also provides habitat to foxes, rats and lizards. Because of that, last December the Center for Biological Diversity and a coalition of environmental groups legally challenged the county’s approval for Panoche. In San Luis Obispo County, the Planning Commission is expected to approve the SunPower project by the end of this month, “with construction beginning during the summer and the first 25 MWs online by end of this year,” Ekstrom stated. The planning commission set a formal hearing for First Solar’s Topaz project for March 24. “It is expected that whatever they decide, it will be appealed to the county board of supervisors,” First Solar’s Bernheimer said.

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