Settlement limits life of Carrizo Plain solar plant

A 550-megawatt solar plant on the Carrizo Plain will be decommissioned after 35 years of operation and the area will be restored to its natural state as part of a lawsuit settlement.

First Solar and two local activist groups announced the settlement, which would not only limit the life of the Topaz Solar Farm photovoltaic plant, but will also place a conservation easement on the land and provide an endowment for managing the land in perpetuity.

“Combined with other off-site lands Topaz is conserving, this agreement will support the preservation of approximately 22,000 acres to be protected in perpetuity following the end of the project operations,” the company announced in a news release.

Susan Harvey, who represents the litigants North County Watch and Carrizo Commons, said the agreement to limit the life of the project was a substantial concession on the part of First Solar and accomplishes a major goal.

“A big concern of mine was that the area not be a big industrial site forever,” she said.

The new agreement also requires the establishment of a biological working group that will conduct research and monitoring during the life of the project, particularly during construction, in order to minimize biological impacts.

The two groups sued to stop the project because of its possible impacts on rare plants and animals that live on the Carrizo Plain, including the San Joaquin kit fox and pronghorn antelope.

The groups have filed a similar lawsuit against another photovoltaic plant proposed for the Carrizo Plain, the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch by SunPower. Construction has already started on that project and parties are in settlement negotiations in the case, Harvey said.

The First Solar project suffered a setback when it failed to meet a Friday deadline to start construction and lost $1.9 billion in federal loan guarantees. The company is negotiating with other lenders to line up new funding.

First Solar officials would not comment on whether the settlement will make it easier to get a new loan.