Solar projects to be reviewed by SLO County Planning Commission

Two large commercial solar plants proposed for the Carrizo Plain are facing make-or-break hearings before the county Planning Commission, after both were repeatedly redesigned to address environmental concerns.

One project, the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch, received a vote of confidence from county planners when its final environmental impact report listed the solar company’s latest revised plans as the environmentally superior alternative.

The other project, the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm, has been similarly redesigned to address environmental concerns.

“We are hopeful that the county will agree with us and find that this is the environmentally superior alternative,” said Kathryn Arbeit, business development director for First Solar, the company proposing the Topaz project.

California Valley Solar Ranch, proposed by SunPower Corp., will go before the Planning Commission on Jan. 27.

First Solar’s Topaz project is tentatively scheduled for a Planning Commission study session Feb. 10 and a hearing March 24, said Steve McMasters, the project’s county planner. Approval of either project by the commission can, and likely will, be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

If built as planned, the two projects would be among the largest photovoltaic plants in the nation.

At the hearings, planners will weigh the energy and economic benefits of building the plants with their cost to the environment.

Both projects have faced challenges regarding endangered wildlife that live on the Carrizo Plain.

The draft environmental impact reports for both projects initially called for them to be scaled back in order to minimize these impacts.

In the case of the SunPower project, giant kangaroo rats are the species of concern. The arrays of thousands of solar panels had to be redesigned to avoid the rats’ underground burrows.

As a result of the redesign, the biological impacts of the solar plant are considered to be less than significant, according to planning reports. The county recommendation now is that the size of the plant be approved at its original 250 megawatts.

In the case of the First Solar project, San Joaquin kit foxes were the main concern, along with the visual impact of the panels lining the highway. In response to these concerns, First Solar has grouped the panels more closely together to reduce the project’s overall footprint by 15 percent to 3,500 acres and increased highway setbacks to 500 feet from 400.

The redesign is intended to create a migration corridor between the two solar projects for kit foxes as well as tule elk and pronghorn antelope. It also avoids lands under long-term farmland protection agreements.

First Solar is hoping these changes will allow it to keep the project at its proposed 550-megawatt size, Arbeit said. The draft environmental review recommends it be scaled back to about 400 megawatts.

Criticism continues

These revisions have failed to mute the criticism of various environmental groups who believe the Carrizo Plain is unsuitable for large solar plants because of the area’s many rare and endangered species. Most critics recommend that both projects be relocated east to highly disturbed, fallow farmland in Kern County.

“The way to maintain healthy, vibrant ecosystems is not to fragment them and reduce their biodiversity,” wrote the Center for Biological Diversity in a typical letter critical of the projects.

The Topaz project also has a unique challenge in that its panels would surround two residences. One of the residents, Michael Strobridge, is joining the environmentalists in asking that the projects be moved.

“Ideally, the county will see the ‘big picture’ and direct this mammoth project elsewhere,” wrote Strobridge’s attorney, Samuel Johnston, in a letter to county planners. “There is no reason to destroy the last, best area of biological diversity in California when better locations exist.”

In their deliberations, planning commissioners must decide whether the benefits of the two projects outweigh their cost to the environment. These benefits include increased electrical generation and helping to meet the state’s goals for more renewable energy sources.

Another benefit is a boost to the economy, particularly during the construction phases of the projects.

Last week, Cal Poly economists released a study that found that the SunPower project alone will inject some $315 million into the county’s economy over its 25-year life.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.