Editorial: Kudos to supervisors for approving SunPower plan

The county should be just as forward-thinking with Topaz

April 23, 2011 

Score one for the future. The county Board of Supervisors’ 5-0 approval of the 250-megawatt SunPower solar project on the Carrizo Plain showed excellent leadership and long-term planning.

Supervisors eloquently signaled their acknowledgement of the threat posed by global warming and their willingness to make our county part of the solution.

We hope that same attitude prevails when it comes to First Solar’s 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm, also proposed for the Carrizo Plain.

Planning Commissioners reviewed that project Monday, and made it clear that they are interested in maintaining it at 550 megawatts — enough to power 160,000 homes.

That’s encouraging.

However, the Topaz project does not yet have a final blessing from the commission and, like the SunPower project, it could ultimately wind up being appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

As with the SunPower application, environmentalists have been split on Topaz.

Some say the risk that that large commercial solar farm poses to the fragile Carrizo Plain ecosystem — especially to rare and endangered species — is too great. They advocate moving such projects to other jurisdictions. We strongly disagree.

If we don’t move forward with clean energy projects such as this, we’ll see far, far greater destruction to environments around the world. That’s reason enough to approve the project. Here are others:

•Passing the buck to other jurisdictions is no solution. There is no guarantee that elected officials in other counties or states will have the political will to approve large-scale solar operations. Besides, if we are ever to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, we’re going to need multiple commercial projects in virtually every part of the country.

•The project will occupy an extremely small portion of the Carrizo Plain, leaving hundreds of thousands of acres undisturbed.

Consider: The Carrizo Plain National Monument covers 250,000 acres. Together, the two solar farms will occupy approximately 8,000 acres — and most of that will be left in open space.

•The Topaz project will be a significant economic boon to the county. A Cal Poly study projects it will inject $417 million into the economy over the 25-year life of the project and will generate 400 jobs during the construction phase.

•First Solar, like SunPower, has taken numerous steps to minimize harm to the environment.

For one, the company dramatically reduced the overall size of the project. When first proposed, it covered a total of 6,200 acres, with solar arrays planned for 2,500 acres. The current project before the Planning Commission is 3,500 acres, and less then 1,400 acres will actually have solar arrays.

First Solar also has agreed to ensure the preservation of 12,000 acres surrounding the site as habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox and other species.

To be sure, additional tweaks may be needed to make the project as strong as possible, but we believe the basic design is sound.

We strongly urge county officials to move it forward as expeditiously as possible and send the message that San Luis Obispo County is doing its part in making the transition away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy sources.

Again, we congratulate the county Board of Supervisors for its forward-thinking decision on the SunPower project.

We urge county decision-makers to apply the same wise approach in considering the Topaz Solar Farm.

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