Solar company plans preserve for kangaroo rat in San Luis Obispo County

The solar company SunPower is planning to establish an endangered species conservation area at its proposed 250-megawatt photovoltaic plant in California Valley.

Under the plan, the company would establish a conservation easement on more than 1,000 acres as well as an endowment that would fund preservation activities to protect the giant kangaroo rat and other rare species found in the area, said Brian Boroski, a wildlife ecologist hired by SunPower to set up the conservation area.

“The easement will be in place and the endowment funded before construction,” Boroski said.

The company is in the process of getting permits to install nearly 2,000 acres of photovoltaic panels and other facilities at the eastern end of California Valley. The layout of the California Valley Solar Ranch had to be significantly altered when it was discovered that endangered giant kangaroo rats are found on much of the land originally earmarked for solar panel installation.

Biological issues, particularly rare and endangered species, remain the main concern of the solar project, said county Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes California Valley. This has caused some environmental groups to call for the solar farm to be relocated to the oilfields of Kern County, where the environment is already heavily impacted.

The establishment of the conservation area takes protecting the kangaroo rat one step farther, Boroski said.

The conservation easement will permanently protect the land and the endowment fund will allow ongoing monitoring and other preservation activities to occur.

Many of the specifics of the conservation area have not yet been determined. These include the exact size, which nonprofit group will hold the easement and the size of the endowment.

These questions will be answered when SunPower completes its habitat management plan for the project, Boroski said. The plan must be approved by the state Department of Fish and Game and the federal Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The county has released an environmental impact report on the project containing an environmentally superior alternative that calls for the project to be scaled back to 175 megawatts in order to minimize its impacts.

The county Planning Commission is scheduled to formally take up the project in January. Project approval and the beginning of construction could take place by the end of 2011.

An environmental impact report for a second photovoltaic plant in California Valley, the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm, is expected to be published by the end of the year.