SLO County planning commission holds hearing on Topaz Solar Farm

County planning commissioners said Monday they are not interested in reducing the proposed Topaz Solar Farm from 550 megawatts to 400.

The commission held a daylong hearing on the Topaz Solar Farm, a photovoltaic plant proposed for the Carrizo Plain. It will take up the project again April 28.

If approved, the project will cover 3,500 acres of land with some 9 million solar panels near Highway 58 and Bitterwater Road. County planning staff offered several smaller versions of the project that would reduce various environmental impacts such as aesthetics and loss of wildlife habitat.

Only Commissioner Dan O’Grady, whose district includes the Carrizo Plain, was interested in discussing any option that would reduce the power output to 400 megawatts. Project proponents First Solar have contracted with PG&E to provide 550 megawatts.

Commissioner Ken Topping said there is an urgent need for projects such as Topaz, particularly given the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan that crippled a nuclear power plant there.

Commissioners discussed a variety of issues related to the project, including putting distribution lines underground, glare from the panels and the potential for contamination from the hazardous material cadmium telluride, which is in the panels.

Critics of the project have said they are concerned that the material could get into the air or groundwater in the event panels broke or the facility was damaged by wildfire. Project managers with First Solar said the company will have procedures in place to find and replace broken panels and described the risk of contamination as negligible.

Another safety concern is glare from the panels causing unsafe driving conditions on Highway 58. Motorists driving east early in the morning would be at the greatest risk from glare, said Steve McMasters, county project manager.

Setbacks of 500 feet from the highway will primarily reduce the danger. If needed, the panels could be screened from the highway using trees, earthen berms or fencing, McMasters said.

First Solar hopes to get the project approved so construction can start in September. A second photovoltaic plant, a 250-megawatt project proposed nearby, has already received Planning Commission approval.

The county Board of Supervisors will hear an appeal of that project today.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.