The recent Viewpoint by Erik Layman that took the Sierra Club and North County Watch to task for our positions on the solar power projects planned for the Carrizo Plain (“Only roadblocks for green energy,” Sept. 23) expressed a common frustration, one we are likely to see more of as the environmental review process for these two proposed projects continues.
We have had some experience with this sentiment over the years and would sum it up as follows: “This is a good project. The developers have assured us that they will protect species and resources. They should be given all needed permits immediately so that we may start realizing the benefits. They shouldn’t have to jump through hoops and face delays and questions and be forced to consider alternatives at the behest of planners and public interest groups.”
But questions, hoops and alternatives are the components of the public process, in which a proposed project is subjected to scientific analysis, expert agency comments and public scrutiny as is mandated, in this case, by the California Environmental Quality Act.
The Carrizo Plain, ideal in terms of how much sunlight shines on the land year-round, is also the site of the highest concentration of threatened and endangered species of plants and animals in California.
So the solar companies are proposing to spend large sums on efforts to avoid the worst of the impacts that such projects would inflict. Input from county planning staff, the public and environmental organizations has resulted in a draft environmental impact report that recommends a substantially altered project from the one originally proposed, including a significant reduction in scope intended to protect environmental resources.
Such efforts may or may not succeed. If they fail, species already struggling will face the likely prospect of extinction.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to this dilemma. The Westlands Water District, consisting of 30,000 acres stretching north from Kettleman City, is a great example. Retired agricultural land that can no longer be farmed due to lack of water and salt build-up in the soil, rendering it toxic to crops, is being made available to solar developers. A high-capacity transmission line runs through the property that could accommodate solar projects producing 20 times the energy of one of the Carrizo plants.
Distributed generation (aka “rooftop solar”) is another alternative, often dismissed by Carrizo solar project proponents as not up to the task of generating power of a magnitude comparable to the Carrizo plants. This dismissal is due to a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of distributed generation.
Just two of the large solar distributed generation projects in California, undertaken by Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric, will equal the generating capacity of both proposed Carrizo projects. Their environmental impacts are insignificant. We trust that the public process will allow for a fuller consideration of these alternatives.
In a letter sent to attendees of SunPower’s Sept. 15 community meeting on its California Valley Solar Ranch project, the company wrote that in the course of the environmental review process, a project alternative “will be devised that ensures any impacts the proposed California Valley Solar Ranch project may have are either eliminated or mitigated to the fullest extent possible.”
That is the mutual goal of the participants in this process. It is the project proponent’s task to meet that legal standard. It is the county’s duty to certify that it is met. And it is the mission and charge of our organizations to point out and help correct potential problems in achieving that goal and to advocate for the alternatives that promise the highest degree of avoidance of the greatest number of impacts.
Because we are environmentalists, we support the development of renewable energy projects. And because we are environmentalists, we must speak for the one group of participants in such projects who have no voice.
Sue Harvey is the president of North County Watch. Cal French is a member of the executive committee of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club.