Carrizo Plain solar project has planners ‘conflicted’

The county Planning Commission on Thursday began the daunting task of deciding whether to approve the first of two large-scale commercial solar plants proposed for the Carrizo Plain.

Commissioner Jim Irving summed up the sentiments of the commission about the challenge of balancing California’s need for renewable energy projects while protecting the area’s fragile ecosystem.

“I am as conflicted about this project as anything in my life,” he said.

The commission’s job was made all the harder by the fact that three of the five commissioners are new appointees and unfamiliar with the project.

On Wednesday, the commission held an all-day field trip to the Carrizo Plain to see the sites of the two proposed projects firsthand.

The commission made no final decisions Thursday. But it agreed that the 250-megawatt SunPower project should proceed.

None of the commissioners showed interest in denying the project outright or sending it out of the county.

“I am in agreement with people who are ready to get going on this,” Chairwoman Carlyn Christianson said.

The commission discussed in detail some of the thorniest issues facing the project, including aesthetics and effects on endangered species. They instructed staff to come back with possible additional requirements.

Some of these included requiring some distribution lines to be placed underground, requiring solar panels be installed farther back from Highway 58 than previously proposed and finding ways to secure funding to staff the County/Cal Fire station in California Valley full-time. Currently, it’s staffed three days a week.

These issues are expected to be discussed further Thursday morning, when the commission will take the project up again.

Also on that day, commissioners will hold a study session on the other Carrizo Plain photovoltaic plant, a 550-megawatt First Solar project.

The SunPower project hearing is liable to be continued again to Feb. 24, when a final decision is possible. Whatever decision the commissioners make, it is certain to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, Christianson said.

The commission took additional comments from the public Thursday, many of them Carrizo Plain residents. Some residents support the project as a way to bring needed additional services to the area, while others said it would destroy the region’s uniqueness.

Rancher Darrell Twissleman, who owns the land proposed for the SunPower project, said the Carrizo Plain is the ideal place for solar projects and urged its approval. Others opposed it, preferring more rooftop solar.

“We should not destroy any natural reserve before every roof is covered with solar panels,” said Mike Strobridge, whose home is amid the First Solar project.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.