Reducing visual impacts versus protecting an endangered rat has emerged as a disagreement among county planning commissioners as they debate whether to approve a 250-megawatt solar project proposed for the Carrizo Plain.
Commissioners inched closer to a decision on the photovoltaic plant during a half-day hearing Thursday. Another and likely final special meeting on the project is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday. Commissioner Dan O’Grady, whose district includes the Carrizo Plain, wants electricity collection lines within the project placed underground. Keeping them above ground, as currently proposed, requires the use of several hundred 60-foot-tall utility poles.
These poles would make the project more visible from Highway 58. Aesthetics are one of several significant and unavoidable impacts of the project.
However, putting the lines underground would create a 60-foot-wide corridor through the project that would be unusable for giant kangaroo rats, which live in extensive underground burrows. This puts O’Grady’s idea at odds with minimizing impacts on endangered species, the overriding environmental concern of the project.
O’Grady argued that the underground lines could be routed in such a way as to avoid kangaroo rat areas and use roads and other already developed areas. This could reduce the impact to a negligible level, he said.
Project applicants, SunPower Corp., and several of the other commissioners were uncomfortable with doing anything that would increase impacts on the endangered rodents.
“I’ve heard a lot from the Department of Fish and Game,” said Commissioner Carlyn Christianson. “They care about every rat.”
Commissioners are not considering putting underground a larger intertie line that would connect the solar plant to the electricity grid via nearby transmission lines. The intertie line requires utility poles that are more than 100 feet tall.
The idea of putting collection lines underground joins a list of other issues the Planning Commission will have to hash out before it takes a final vote on the project.
These include whether an access road should be paved, steps to minimize public exposure to Valley fever, and staffing levels at the California Valley Cal Fire station.
Commissioners are expected to approve the project but are likely to impose additional environmental protections called conditions. Whatever they decide is certain to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
If the project receives final approval, construction is expected to begin by September. A second Carrizo Plain solar power project, a 550-megawatt First Solar photovoltaic plant, is also in the permitting process and on a similar timeline.