Viewpoint: First Solar aware of concerns

October 13, 2009 

The recent Tribune series on the solar energy projects proposed for the Carrizo Plain and the subsequent editorial are very helpful in fostering public discussion on an important issue.

The Tribune is right to frame the discussion as a balance between the environmental and economic benefits of clean, affordable, sustainable energy and the protection of wildlife and the local environment.

First Solar has sited and designed its proposed Topaz Solar Farm to minimize negative environmental impacts. SLO County is currently in the midst of preparing an Environmental Impact Report that will provide even more information on what must be done to avoid and mitigate impacts from the project. This has always been our approach.

To begin with, we sited the project largely on previously tilled, marginally productive agricultural land that is more than nine miles away from the sensitive habitats in the Carrizo Plain National Monument. Only 700 acres of the Topaz Solar Farm would occupy current grassland, and that is non-native annual grasses. The remaining 3,500 acres of Topaz would convert plowed agricultural land into vegetated habitat, intended to support native animals. Thanks to environmentally sensitive design features like panels mounted on steel posts, the solar farm can provide a more usable habitat for key species than is currently available with the site’s active grain crops.

The only threatened or endangered species living on the Topaz site is the San Joachin kit fox. First Solar is working with leading kit fox biologists to improve habitat for the kit fox over the current farmed condition, providing, for example, fencing that admits the kit fox but excludes its predators. The county’s EIR will suggest ways to avoid and mitigate any impacts on this species.

California’s grassland is an important natural resource. But it’s not the case that the Carrizo Plain is the last remnant of this ecology in the state. Grasslands occupy about 165,000 acres in the Carrizo Plain, or less than 1.5 percent of California’s grasslands, which total 11 million acres, or about 11 percent of the state.

As useful as it is to weigh positive and negative environmental consequences, it’s a false dichotomy to position centralized, ground-mounted solar generation and rooftop systems as rivals. California needs all the solar power it can get, from both centralized and distributed generation sources, in order to achieve our current goals for renewable energy (20 percent by 2010), let alone our pending expanded goals (33 percent by 2020). It’s not true that rooftop solar can shoulder most of this load. Even if manufacturing costs fell dramatically or government incentives were greatly expanded, only 2.4 percent of our electricity would come from distributed solar by 2020, against a total renewable requirement of 33 percent, according to a February 2009 projection by the California Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative.

First Solar supports and is active in both kinds of generation. Our low-cost thin-film solar panels are available for home and commercial installation, and we supplied Southern California Edison in the pilot phase of its large rooftop project. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which plans to buy the power from Topaz, is also seeking approval for a utility-owned rooftop program. Large projects like Topaz are necessary to help grow the solar industry to sustainable levels, allowing economies of scale to help bring down the costs for rooftop systems as well.

In addition to its environmental benefits, we estimate that the Topaz Solar Farm will create $16 million in new sales and property tax revenue for the county, 400 jobs during construction, a dozen ongoing monitoring and maintenance jobs, and indirect economic benefits to dozens of local businesses. It can also help establish SLO County as a leader in renewable energy, stimulating development of a local clean energy economy.

First Solar continues to hear from a great many SLO County residents who support the Topaz Solar Farm for its environmental, economic and educational benefits. And we, in turn, support an ongoing open discussion of the project. We look forward to continuing to work with the community to design and build a solar farm that is good for SLO County and good for California.

Kathryn Arbeit is First Solar’s project director for the Topaz Solar Farm.

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