Concerns about giant rat abound

Concerns about endangered species continue to dominate discussions of plans to build a 250-megawatt solar farm in the Carrizo Plain.

At a county Planning Commission workshop Thursday, a state Department of Fish and Game biologist said that the entire area where SunPower Corp. plans to build its California Valley Solar Ranch is potential habitat for the endangered giant kangaroo rat.

“We have only a glimpse of where the giant kangaroo rats are,” said Dave Hacker, who oversees the many solar projects in the state for the department. “It changes over time.”

Hacker said he considers the kangaroo rats living on the SunPower site to be the largest recovering population on private land in the state. Although recent surveys have given a better picture of where the small rodents are living now, they might have a different distribution pattern when construction of the project is scheduled to begin next year, he said.

Concerns over the kangaroo rat prompted SunPower to reconfigure the layout of the photovoltaic panels to minimize their impact. The newer design avoids 92 percent of the rat dens, and the company has agreed to replace the remaining 34 acres of habitat at a 4-to-1 ratio.

The presence of the kangaroo rat and other rare species has caused some activists and residents to call for the project to be moved to highly disturbed, retired farmland to the northeast in Kern County. However, planning for this Westlands Water District land is a year behind that of the SunPower project.

“It’s a year for them (SunPower); it’s a year for us. But it’s an eternity for the giant kangaroo rat,” said Greg McMillan, a Carrizo Plain resident.

In a letter Thursday to county planners, DFG Chief Deputy Director Kevin Hunting said continued collaboration among everyone involved in the process “should provide a good foundation” for allowing renewable energy projects such as SunPower’s to move ahead while still protecting wildlife.

The Planning Commission will formally take up the SunPower project Jan. 27. At that hearing, the commission could approve, deny or modify the project.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.