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Controversial San Benito County Solar Project Jumps Hurdle

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The endangered San Joaquin kit fox, native to the Panoche Valley | Photo: Greg Schechter/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A large solar facility proposed for a 1,629-acre site in San Benito County moved forward today, when the state commission responsible for managing utility rate issues approved the project's contract to sell power to Southern California Edison.

By a 4-1 vote Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a power purchase agreement under which the utility would buy all the power produced by the 247-megawatt Panoche Valley Solar Project.

That has environmental activists upset: Panoche Valley has some of the last remaining intact habitat for the federally Endangered species San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, and blunt nosed leopard lizard, as well as species of concern like tiger salamanders, burrowing owls, and golden eagles.

 

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The project has yet to get a green light from either the California Department of Fish and Wildlife or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which will be evaluating the project's impact on those and other species of concern. Additional hurdles remaining for the project are review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of any filling of waterways the project plans, as well as state and federal environmental assessment by San Benito County.

The Panoche Valley, east of Pinnacles National Park, is a semiarid grassland that's been declared a globally important bird area by the National Audubon Society. Visiting bird species include large numbers of wintering raptors.

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Wildflower bloom in the Panoche Valley in February 2015 | Photo: Elaine with Grey Cats/Flickr/Creative Commons License
 

Due to the valley's importance for wildlife, environmental activists have been working to oppose the facility since the original owner, Solargen, first proposed the project five years ago. Current owner PV2 Energy bought the project in 2011, bringing Duke Energy on as a major partner in 2012. Duke quietly backed almost completely out of the project sometime in 2014.

Environmental groups were quick to condemn the Commission's vote to approve the power purchase agreement.

"As California continues its remarkable development of clean energy, our state regulators must also learn from the mistakes made during the last wave of solar projects, which in some cases have caused significant, if unintended, environmental damage," said Bill Corcoran of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "We must learn from those projects and strive to do better. We are disappointed in the CPUC's decision today, which was a missed opportunity to learn from the mistakes of the past.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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