The recent Tribune editorial of Sept. 12 appropriately warns that many questions need to be answered before the proposed solar industrial plants are approved for the environmentally sensitive Carissa Plains.
One question stands out:
Who benefits? The area is home to numerous sensitive and protected species, including the endangered kit fox. The projects will block important wildlife corridors and consume excessive water in an area classified as overdraft. With the likely “take” of listed species, the environment does not stand to benefit, nor the local community which relies on limited groundwater supplies. Based on what limited information we have about the projected water use by the plants, there is no assurance that residents of the area will have enough water to fulfill their agricultural and residential needs.
We don’t know what types of jobs will result or how long they will last. The solar companies’ tax exemptions may not last. Without tax incentives, and without productive agricultural land, what will happen to these areas? The local economy relies on agriculture. Local energy fees will likely increase. The benefits to the local economy from these projects appear virtually nonexistent, and in fact there is a real risk of long-term damage if agricultural loss is not adequately mitigated.
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Distributed solar is a viable alternative: rooftops are already available, local companies are already in place and equipment is ready to install.
Distributed solar could provide thousands of local jobs for decades. Feed-in tariffs have proven successful, and could provide the equivalent of an 8 percent annual return on investments.
The Tribune agrees that rooftop solar should proceed, yet argues that distributed panels won’t be enough to satisfy the state’s needs.
However, the California Energy Commission’s consideration of solar rooftop in the context of the Carrizo Solar Energy Farm project almost certainly underestimates the efficiency of panels that are just now coming online, or will in the near future. Solar panels are updated nearly as quickly as computer programs; today’s panels are obsolete tomorrow (another reason why we should be skeptical of massive arrays of panels in one limited area). Much more beneficial for the local economy would be a plan involving distributed generation, which recent studies show could also help satisfy the state’s portfolio goals without any of the adverse environmental, agricultural or economic impacts of large industrial facilities.
We certainly agree that the continued reliance on fossil fuels cannot stand. But in the rush to find alternative sources of energy, we are concerned that other aspects of a long-term solution are being overlooked, particularly the need to reduce consumption. Efficiency and reduction are the “low-hanging fruit” when it comes to addressing global warming. Merely substituting one form of industrial production with another that is riddled with questions entails too many risks not only to the environment, but also to local economic sustainability. There is no “silver bullet,” but many who support these projects seem to think there is.
So who benefits from the proposals? Mainly the companies building the plants and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Moreover, some of those screaming NIMBY the loudest may stand to gain the most. We should keep an open mind and analyze all possible alternatives before committing to a risky game of Russian roulette with the irreplaceable public resources of SLO County. Michael Strobridge is an intervener with the California Energy Commission in the Ausra permitting case and has been actively involved in the permitting process of all three solar projects. He owns and lives on a small ranch in the Carissa Plains.