An environmental review of one of two large commercial solar farms proposed for California Valley is recommending that the project’s electrical output be reduced by 40 percent to protect the habitat of the giant kangaroo rat, an endangered species living in the area.
The solar company proposing the plant will ask the county to accept a different configuration of the project that it says protects the kangaroo rat but keeps electrical output at its original level.
This week, the county Planning Department released a draft environmental impact report for the California Valley Solar Ranch, a 250-megawatt photovoltaic plant proposed by SunPower Corp. of Richmond.
The report’s environmentally preferred alternative calls for reducing the electrical output of the project from 250 megawatts to 150 megawatts in order to protect habitat for the giant kangaroo rat, a species listed as endangered by both state and federal regulators.
Under this proposal, the footprint of the project would be reduced by 27 percent to avoid areas with the greatest densities of kangaroo rats. A different model of solar panel that requires 20 percent less room would also be used.
SunPower executives say another alternative outlined in the report allows them to stay at 250 megawatts. This version would use more densely aligned solar panels and rework the layout of the plant to avoid 800 acres of prime kangaroo rat habitat.
The solar company would also improve the 800 acres as kangaroo rat habitat, further offsetting the environmental effects of the project. Planners say they considered this version initially but rejected it because it calls for some solar arrays to be placed on steeper ground.
“This alternative would require substantially greater amounts of grading than the proposed project and would result in greater erosion concerns and greater visual impacts,” the report concluded.
The SunPower project has been two years in the making. It is one of the first large-scale commercial solar projects in the state to reach the final planning stages. A large solar thermal project in the Mojave Desert has also reached this stage.
“This is really a big milestone not just for us but for the solar industry as a whole,” said Paul McMillan, SunPower utilities director. “We look forward to working with the county to move the project into the implementation phase.”
The project is located mostly south of Highway 58 about four miles east of Soda Lake Road, immediately north of the community of California Valley. The solar farm also includes an aggregate surface mine and nearly three miles of new transmission lines to connect the facility to existing lines running from Morro Bay to the Central Valley.
A second, larger solar facility is proposed west of the SunPower site. First Solar of Tempe, Ariz., has proposed installing a 550-megawatt plant on 4,500 acres of land at Highway 58, just east of Bitterwater Road. First Solar officials say the draft environmental report for their project, called Topaz Solar Farm, is due out next month.
Release of the SunPower report starts this tentative schedule of events as the project wends its way through the permitting and approval process, said John McKenzie, county planner:
• Oct. 12, the public comment period of the draft report closes.
• Dec. 9, a study session on the project with the Planning Commission.
• Jan. 13, Planning Commission hearing on the project.
Whatever decision the commission makes, an appeal to the Board of Supervisors is considered likely, McKenzie said. California Valley neighbors opposed to the project could appeal, or SunPower could appeal if the commission approves a scaled-down project.