Editorial: SunPower project needs approval, and quickly

East county solar-energy farm has plenty of protections

January 22, 2011 

It’s hard to find someone who’s not a fan of solar power — at last in theory. Yet for all the lip service we pay to this clean, renewable source of energy, large-scale solar farms have been tough sells.

Environmentalists in particular have been vigilant watchdogs when it comes to permitting solar plants. That stands to reason, since commercial solar operations are typically proposed for rural lands that often contain great biological diversity.

Case in point: SunPower Corp.’s 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch Project, which comes before the county Planning Commission on Thursday.

SunPower’s proposal is the first of two large solar project applications working their way through the county approval process. Both are proposed for the Carrizo Plain, which is home to the state’s largest concentration of endangered plants and animals.

Protecting that diversity is a great concern. However, we believe the SunPower project, as revised, will provide adequate protection to rare and endangered species, while producing substantial energy — enough to power 100,000 homes — to make the project worthwhile.

We strongly urge the county Planning Commission to approve the application.

Project opponents will doubtless argue that we don’t need a project of this scope and that rooftop solar is an acceptable alternative — or that large-scale plants should go elsewhere.

Rooftop solar is an important part of the equation, but it’s not a practical option for many homes and businesses. Aside from the expense, many existing buildings don’t lend themselves to photovoltaic installations because they aren’t oriented properly, are shaded by trees or have too many rooftop design elements.

As for sending commercial projects elsewhere, we don’t believe that relying on other jurisdictions — which may or may not get around to approving projects in a timely fashion — is the answer.

That will only delay delivery of the renewable energy that California has committed to produce.

Consider, too, that San Luis Obispo County stands to gain economically by having the project within its boundaries. During the construction phase, the project will employ about 250 workers. SunPower has signed a labor agreement with trade unions that specifically gives preference to residents of SLO County. With local unemployment in construction trades running a dismal 17 percent, that’s a significant step.

The overall economic benefit is also impressive; a recent study commissioned by SunPower estimated that over its 25-year life, the project would infuse $315 million into the local economy.

Economic benefits, however, would not be enough to mitigate irreparable damage to the environment.

But that’s hardly the case here. The project has undergone months of review and numerous revisions to protect habitat and to minimize noise, traffic and other disturbances.

Changes include:

• Agreeing to permanently preserve 70 percent of the 4,700-acre site;

• Reducing the overall footprint of the solar arrays by 24 percent;

• Reducing height of solar trackers to 6 feet from 12 feet to minimize visual impact;

• Avoiding 92 percent of kangaroo rat dens, and agreeing to replace the remaining 34 acres of habitat at a 4-to-1 ratio;

• Reducing the number of solar arrays that will be most visible from Highway 58;

• Changing the type of fencing to make it easier for kit foxes to cross them;

• Reducing water use by 20 percent per year;

• Minimizing truck traffic by using an existing, onsite mine to supply gravel for roads and other construction needs; and

• Providing temporary housing for construction workers and setting up bus and van pools to minimize employee trips.

That’s only a partial list; county staff has attached 145 major conditions for approval to the permit and the company has agreed to honor all of them, according to spokeswoman Ingrid Ekstrom.

Granted, even with all these protective measures, there will be some disturbances — that’s true of any development.

But then consider the alternative.

Continuing to do nothing — or to take only baby steps toward reducing reliance on fossil fuels — puts us on a path of environmental destruction that poses a far greater threat not just to a handful of rare and endangered species, but also to every species on the planet.

We believe it’s time to approve SunPower’s application.

Meeting facts

The county Planning Commission meets at 9 a.m. Thursday at the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St. SunPower’s application is the second item on the agenda. Because the hearing is expected to be lengthy, it’s already been decided to continue the issue to Feb. 3.

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