Second solar project in Carrizo Plain gets OK

County supervisors Tuesday approved 550 megawatts of photovoltaic power for the Carrizo Plain, which will turn the area into one of the state’s major renewable power hubs.

The Topaz Solar Farm by First Solar is the second industrial-scale solar project approved for the area. The 250-megawatt project by California Valley Solar Ranch was approved by supervisors earlier this year, bringing the total power planned for the area to 800 megawatts.

In voting to approve the project, Supervisor Adam Hill noted that the two projects will produce more electricity than all the state’s distributed solar projects.

“It’s really folly to suppose that we can meet our energy needs solely with distributed solar,” Hill said.

Distributed solar refers to small-scale projects at multiple locations, including residential and commercial rooftop installations.

Greater emphasis on distributed solar, moving the plant to a less ecologically sensitive area and concerns about effects of the plant on rare and endangered species were some of the reasons given for three separate appeals filed against the project. Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to deny those appeals.

The company plans to break ground on the project by the end of September in order to meet a deadline to qualify for federal Department of Energy loan guarantees, First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer said.

The supervisors’ vote was the final regulatory hurdle for the project, which has been in the works for four years. However, lawsuits are likely. Many of the opponents of the Topaz solar project have already sued to overturn the California Valley Solar Ranch project.

Much of the debate about the Topaz project centered on biological impacts, most notably those on the San Joaquin kit fox, a federally listed endangered species.

“This project is located in the wrong place,” said Sam Johnston, a lawyer for Carrizo Plain resident Michael Strobridge, one of the appellants. “It’s an attempt to fit a square peg in a round hole.”

The project was redesigned several times in order to create wildlife migration corridors and other features that would promote habitat.

Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Jim Patterson, whose district includes the Carrizo Plain, said they think the project will be a net gain for wildlife. First Solar has agreed to conserve 12,000 acres of grassland in the area to serve kit fox habitat.

“I think we’ve got a good project here — both a short-term and a long-term benefit to the county,” Patterson said.

Most members of the public who spoke about the project were in favor of it. They cited the need for such renewable energy projects to fight global climate change and the economic boost that installation of the 9 million solar panels over 3,500 acres would bring to the county.