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Groups Sue Solar Company Over San Luis Obispo County Project

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By Zach Behrens and Leon Koenen

Existing high-voltage transmission lines above test panel array cross the project site | Photo courtesy First Solar

The dispute between the solar power industry and environmental groups is often played out in California's desert. From desert tortoise deaths in Ivanpah Valley at the Nevada border to sensitive lands abut Joshua Tree National Park, there are plenty of stories, editorials and opinions taking sides on how to green California's--and the nation's--energy future.

Now that struggle is taking place in the Carrizo Plain in eastern San Luis Obispo County. Three plaintiffs have filed a lawsuit challenging permits and an environmental impact report for the California Valley Solar Ranch, a 250 megawatt-producing project slated to begin construction in August on seven square miles of private land.

Opponents point to the area as a home to 34 endangered and threatened species, as well as designated core habitat for three animals: the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rat. In fact, the Carrizo Plain is home to more threatened and endangered species than anywhere else in California.

Soda Lake Road in the Carrizo Plain | Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET

Just a few miles south is the Carrizo Plain National Monument, which protects species and a large swath of the state's remaining San Joaquin Valley grassland ecosystem. "We can't afford that kind of mistake with a whole suite of interconnected endangered species," said Susan Harvey, President of North County Watch and a member of Carrizo Commons, groups both involved in the lawsuit. "That's why the County needs to revisit the EIR and reevaluate this project's impacts, proposed mitigations and alternatives," she added.

The solar photovoltaic farm won unanimous approval by county supervisors in April, but 148 conditions must be first met before the end of August in order to lessen environmental impacts.

A week before the approval, Governor Jerry Brown signed a law requiring utilities in the state produce 33% of its energy from renewable sources. The event was held in the Bay Area city of Milpitas at the dedication of Flextronics, a company that will manufacture solar power panels for SunPower, the company behind the California Valley Solar Ranch.

A dozen miles down the 58 Highway from the ranch is a larger planned solar development that gained approval earlier this month from the county's planning commission. The Topaz Solar Farm owned by First Solar would produce 550 megawatts from photovoltaic panels on 12 square miles of land, which Harvey says is key land for migration patterns of pronghorn antelope that were introduced by Fish and Game in the 1980s.

Although Harvey's group plans to appeal the commission decision, it is likely the county board of supervisors will ultimately approve the project. "If you want to see parts of Bangladesh underwater because you are against solar panels on the Carrizo Plain, I won't join you," one supervisor dramatically said when approving the California Valley Solar Ranch in April. The San Luis Obispo Tribune cheered the move in an editorial, encouraging the board to be "just as forward-thinking with Topaz."

Harvey is not against solar power production, but would rather see it on disturbed lands. She said there are 93 solar projects at varying stages in the Central Valley that are not being challenged. Those range from large-scale farms like the Maricopa Sun Solar Complex (700 MW) near the southern end of the Carrizo Plain to smaller ones such as the Bakersfield Fuel and Oil Solar Project (20 MW).

A degraded structure off Highway 58 in the Carrizo Plain | Photo by Zach Behrens/KCET

Sites for both California Valley and Topaz were partly chosen because of their proximity to high voltage power lines that power Central Valley properties with energy from Pacific Gas and Electric generated at the Duke Natural Gas Power Plant in Morro Bay. The flat Carrizo Plain at 2,100 feet elevation is protected from fog and averages 315 sunny days a year.

Combined, the projects would bring 750 construction jobs to the area; both solar firms say they'll try to maximize the use of local workers and services. The economic impact is expected to be $700 million over a period of 25 years.

A northern portion of the Carrizo Plain was once envisioned to be a rural suburbia called California Valley, but like California City in the Mojave Desert, thousands of subdivided lots sit empty. Developers in the 1960s believed the California State Water Project would bring water to the area. When a different route was selected, the land was left mostly undesirable.

About 500 residents live in the area today, but there is no gas station or place to buy food--there is a small community center and library--and only 15% of properties have access to electricity. Potable water can be a challenge, too. A school serves students up to 8th grade, who then in high school must then travel 55 miles west through the Caliente Range to Atascadero, a city off the 101 Freeway. Taft, a small city over the Temblor Range is about 45 miles to the east.

The plain's main attraction is its namesake national monument, a 250,000-acre site designated during the last days of Bill Clinton's presidency. It's popular among hardcore wildflower seekers--for some, the sight in a good year is so beautiful that it hurts--and those curious what the San Andreas fault looks like at the surface. But for conversationists, who the land is home to is of the upmost importance. And being home to more more threatened and endangered species than anywhere else in California, they might have a fighting chance.

Update: The story above states that Harvey's groups plans to submit an appeal to the Topaz project. In fact, that happened last week. Other groups that did the same include the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife.

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