County planners get a look at First Solar plan for Carrizo Plain

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission got a first but brief look Thursday at a large solar project that would cover the Carrizo Plain with 9 million solar modules.

If approved, the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm would significantly change the look and feel of the Carrizo by covering 3,500 acres of land with a commercial photovoltaic plant. Commissioners held a brief hearing on the project and will devote an entire day to it April 18.

Project applicant First Solar and county planners said the plant has been redesigned several times to minimize its impacts on endangered species, specifically the San Joaquin kit fox.

Planners are recommending that the project be kept at 550 megawatts, rather than reducing its size to 400 megawatts, said project manager Steve McMasters. The issues facing commissioners are similar to those of a separate 250-megawatt solar project already approved by the commission.

While potential impacts on endangered species have been reduced, significant impacts on the aesthetics of the area and the loss of farmland remain issues. Critics contend the project should be moved to a less ecologically sensitive area.

“We do not protest this project, per se,” said Sam Johnston, lawyer for Carrizo Plain resident Michael Strobridge. “We oppose it being located on the Carrizo.”

Another controversial issue for the First Solar project is that its panels would contain cadmium telluride, a hazardous material, unlike in the other project.

Critics said they fear that the material, if lost, could become a pollutant. Planners said that possibility is remote and a monitoring plan will be required.

First Solar hopes to begin construction later this year. Construction will take three years, and as many as 500 workers will be hired, mostly equipment operators, electricians and laborers.