Top 10 Stories of 2011: No. 7 — SLO County turns into a solar system


Editor’s note: This is No. 7 of The Tribune’s Top 10 stories of 2011 as selected by the newsroom staff. Each day through New Year’s Day we will count down to the top story of the year.

California Valley is undergoing a profound transformation.

The isolated, sparsely populated and bucolic corner of San Luis Obispo County north of the Carrizo Plain National Monument is being transformed into one of the world’s premier centers for turning sunlight into electricity.

Late this year, solar companies broke ground on two large-scale, commercial photovoltaic plants. When complete, the solar farms will produce a total of 800 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 260,000 homes.

Largest of the two is First Solar’s sprawling 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm. It will cover 5.5 square miles north and south of Highway 58 and east of Bitterwater Road.

To the east is SunPower’s 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch, which will cover about 2.5 square miles with solar panels. Unlike First Solar panels, which are static, SunPower’s panels track the sun as it moves through the sky, increasing their output by as much as 25 percent.

Construction is still gearing up on both projects and is expected to take about three years to complete. The solar facilities are expected to give the county’s economy a significant boost, particularly in the construction trades, which have been hit hard by the downturn in the housing market.

The First Solar project is expected to employ 400 workers during construction. SunPower expects to hire 350.Cal Poly did economic analyses on both solar projects. Both have projected life spans of 25 years, with the bulk of the economic impact coming in the three years of construction.

The First Solar project is expected to generate some $14 million in sales taxes, $16 million to $18 million in increased local spending, and $80 million in increased county economic output, for a total impact of $417 million. The SunPower project is forecast to inject $315 million into San Luis Obispo County’s economy.

With varying levels of success, both projects sought loan guarantees using stimulus funds from the federal Department of Energy. SunPower received $1.2 billion in loan guarantees.

First Solar was approved for $1.9 billion in guarantees but failed to meet a Sept. 30 deadline to begin construction. However, the company made up for it by securing funding from Mid-American Energy Holdings, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

This was the make-or-break year for both projects. Each underwent extensive hearings before the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission, and each survived appeals to the county Board of Supervisors.

Both solar companies agreed to modify their projects to lessen the impact on endangered species that live in the area, as well as reduce their visibility from Highway 58. The visual impact of the plants was reduced by locating the solar arrays as far as possible from the road and placing some distribution lines underground.

For the First Solar project, the main environmental concern was the San Joaquin kit fox, an endangered species. The project will use fences and other design features that allow the foxes to migrate through solar panel arrays.

The giant kangaroo rat, another endangered species, was the main concern for the SunPower project. Its layout had to be reconfigured in order to avoid the prime kangaroo rat populations.

Both solar companies also agreed to conserve in perpetuity nearby lands that will be managed specifically as endangered species habitat.

The series previously

No. 8 — Attacks on staff at Atascadero State Hospital lead the state toward reforms.

No. 9 — Two men are accused of kidnapping and torturing another man in a California Valley trailer.

No. 10 — Ian Parkinson becomes sheriff of San Luis Obispo County.

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