Carrizo Plain solar farm has plenty of Plan B’s

When the county Planning Commission meets Thursday for its first hearing on the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm proposed for the Carrizo Plain, commissioners will have plenty of options to choose from.

County planning staff is recommending three “environmentally superior” alternatives. These are versions of the project that planners believe best meet the objectives of the project while minimizing environmental impacts.

Two of the options call for the project to be reduced to 400 megawatts. These smaller projects would reduce the environmental impacts across the board.

A third option calls for keeping the project at 550 megawatts, but reduces the overall footprint of the project and minimizes its effect on the many rare and endangered species that live in the Carrizo Plain.

“We are serving up to the decision makers options, depending on what they are weighing as more important,” said Steve McMasters, county project manager. “If size is important, then they have one that keeps the size at 550 megawatts.”

Project applicant First Solar will argue that 550 megawatts is the way to go. It reduces the footprint of the project by 40 percent over original layouts and concentrates the solar panels on disturbed land that is unsuitable as wildlife habitat, said Kathryn Arbeit, First Solar project manager.

“That combination really creates a strongly improved alternative, which is identified in the staff report,” she said.

Recently completed biological surveys found only three San Joaquin kit foxes living in the area planned for the solar panels. The project has been redesigned several times to avoid the kit fox, a federally listed endangered species.

Endangered species are just one of a list of impacts the project will have. Others include increased traffic, loss of farmland, noise from truck trips and visuals.

“You cannot hide 3,100 acres of solar panels,” McMasters said. “It’s going to look and feel different there.”

In addition to the hearing Thursday, the commission will spend a full day on the Topaz project April 18. Additional time is available April 28, if needed.

Any approval of the project by the Planning Commission is certain to be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. Recent approval of a separate 250-megawatt Carrizo Plain solar project was appealed to the board. That appeal will be heard April 19.

If approved, the Topaz project would be built along Highway 58 between Bitterwater and Soda Lake roads. Construction is scheduled to begin later this year and will take three years to complete.

Gravel pit operation brings objections

A gravel mine proposed to fill the road-building needs of two planned solar projects on the Carrizo Plain ran into controversy Thursday.

Carrizo Plain residents told the county Planning Commission that an existing gravel pit at the proposed mine site had been operating unpermitted for years. Others complained that the way the mine application was handled in conjunction with one of the solar projects was confusing and should have been permitted separately.

Owners of the property, Rowland and Catherine Twisselman, have applied to open a 23-acre aggregate mine near the proposed 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch project. Applicants for the solar project, SunPower, are acting as the Twisselmans’ agent.

The environmental review of the gravel mine and the SunPower project were handled together but were considered at separate hearings. Commissioner Dan O’Grady said the piecemeal way the projects were handled was “very troubling.”

County project manager John McKenzie confirmed that state mining regulators are investigating the fact that an existing 10-acre ranch pit had been operating without a permit.

Once that investigation is complete, the operators of the pit will be required to pay all back taxes and fees.

“It’s not going to be a free ride for them,” McKenzie said.

If approved, the mine would operate for 30 years and produce as much as 100,000 tons of gravel a year.