California Valley solar plants: Grassland to green energy

A worker helps build the Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County in 2012. The plant sells power all its electricity to PG&E.
A worker helps build the Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County in 2012. The plant sells power all its electricity to PG&E. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The dramatic transformation of California Valley from arid grassland to the world’s largest photovoltaic power generation center is well under way.

When the two large-scale commercial solar plants under construction north of the Carrizo Plain National Monument are complete, they will produce 800 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 260,000 homes.

“You are witnessing an energy revolution in the making,” Howard Wenger, president of SunPower, told about 100 people on a tour this week. 

His company is building the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch.

Construction on that facility is about half complete, and it is already feeding 22 megawatts into the state’s electricity grid. Construction should be complete sometime next year, Wenger said.

The valley’s other solar plant, Topaz Solar Farms, is more than 10 percent complete. Workers recently installed the plant’s 1 millionth solar module, said Paul Caudill, president of MidAmerican Solar, which owns the plant. 

The Topaz plant is scheduled to begin feeding power to the electricity grid early next year. When its construction is complete in 2015, the facility will have 9 million modules and produce 550 megawatts of power, making it the largest photovoltaic plant in the world, Caudill said.

The California Valley Solar Ranch will be in the top 10 solar plants in the world, said Fong Wan, PG&E’s vice president of energy procurement. The utility has contracted to buy both plants’ electricity for the next 25 years.

“When combined, they are clearly bigger than anything in the world,” Wan said.

Many of the speakers at an event Wednesday touted the economic benefit the two plants bring to San Luis Obispo County. Combined, the plants are forecast to contribute $732 million to the county’s economy, mostly in the form of 1,600 people employed during the construction phase.

County Supervisor Adam Hill noted that the county’s September unemployment rate was 7.4 percent, the seventh lowest in the state and down from 9.1 percent a year ago. Employment at the solar plants played a major role in that lower rate, Hill said.

He predicted that the success of the two California Valley solar plants will prompt other companies to look at San Luis Obispo County for similar ventures. 

“In San Luis Obispo County, we will be a real leader in renewable energy projects,” he said.

Solar companies are attracted to the California Valley because of its year-round sunshine and proximity to little-used transmission lines. However, the solar companies also have to deal with an unusual diversity of rare and endangered plants and animals, which made permitting the plants much more complicated, said Susan Moore, a field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, golden eagle, tule elk and pronghorn antelope were some of the species potentially affected by the two facilities. The two plants were redesigned several times in order to minimize their harm to wildlife.

For example, both plants will be enclosed by fences that allow kit foxes to pass through but not coyotes, the foxes’ main predator, and 200 giant kangaroo rats have been relocated from the California Valley Solar Ranch site. Migration corridors through the valley used by antelope and elk will be left open, Moore said.

Additionally, 30,000 acres have been conserved for wildlife habitat as mitigation for the projects, said county Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes the two plants. The facilities also brought additional fire protection and law enforcement to the valley.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said four additional deputies are assigned to the area during construction. One of them will be a canine unit that will provide backup for a part of the county where “the closest backup is 50 minutes away with lights and sirens.”