The Planning Commission held their first hearings on SunPower Corp.’s 250 megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch facility, which is to be located in the Carrizo Plains. The project has been greatly modified, after several years of research, public hearings, to the scaled down project presented to the Commission for public comment. There was another item, the Conditional Use Permit and Reclamation Plan to “establish an aggregate surface mine” that would be a closer source of gravel for the project, but that item was postponed. The projects are quasi-linked; there is another source of gravel farther away so this mine opening would simply be more convenient, cheaper and involve less truck traffic during the building phase rather than a linked deal-breaker.
The site of the project has been the biggest bone of contention to date. From SunPower’s perspective, it’s ideal: willing sellers, the flat site is either on or very near a previous solar array, high-powered transmission lines nearby, plenty of sunshine without the San Joaquin Valley’s tule fogs (another site on the Westlands property in the valley is another likely site in addition to this one.), there’s state and federal incentives and SLO county encourages renewables for the county.
The original plan’s footprint was much bigger, the solar arrays much taller, but the entire plan was changed, broken up into separated sections to accommodate Kangaroo rat, Kit fox, antelope habitats.
The expected construction will take 36 months. It will be using earth screws vs concrete pads for the array footings. There will be a temporary 50 unit RV park for construction worker housing. The 10 solar arrays will cover 1,400 acres with approximately 811,000 solar panels, about 6’ in height so the overall look will have a relatively low profile. There’ll be a visitor center/office/maintenance building, fully xerescaped, an oversized water tank for fire, and a reverse osmosis system for water for panel washing and employee drinking water. The brine from the R.O. will be put into (lined? covered to keep critters out?) evaporative ponds for later disposal.
The EIR received major comment and there are a wide array of impacts that will have to be conditioned and/or mitigated. The issue of most concern was the problem of disturbing the K-rat’s homes and for the kit foxes and antelope migration and grazing patterns, as well as issues over endangered plants. Presently, the mitigation measures includes a 4:1 ratio of set aside conservation land to offset conversion of farmable land (farmable if there were water), as well as other restrictions.
Highway 46 & 58 will be closed for ½ hour 1 x a day to get wide-loads delivered. And there will have to be long term monitoring of groundwater, since adequate groundwater supply is still of concern (and contention)
While there will be an increase in greenhouse gasses during construction, all that will be offset by 268,000 metric tons reduction of C0-2 over the lifetime of the plant.
Alternative sites were considered in the EIR; Rooftop solar (most frequently mentioned by the public) isn’t ready yet as a widespread option. The state and counties need to set regulations, incentives, buy-back (feed-to-the-grid) systems before a sort of state wide “Rent A Roof” scattered solar will pencil out. Which means, at present, large commercial arrays are the quickest way to get the transformation started. (Yes, conservation would go a long way to reduce power use, but you know how successful conservation programs have been in the past. Right. Zip. (One speaker pointed out the the BOS chamber could have been built with a skylight in it, thereby avoiding having to waste electricity on all the lights. Heh-heh.) And since this country has no comprehensive energy policy, with little possibility of any coherent renewables efforts coming anytime soon in the present coal/oil-run Congress, we’re presently stuck with using the old large-scale commercial power templates.)
Which means that SunPower’s present efforts are just the start of and a part of the overall efforts to switch our power generation to renewables. The Company believes it’s set in place environmental protections that will bring an economic boom and nice taxes to the county coffers (always a yummy carrot to a cash-strapped local government), and ensure any public loss in case of decommissioning. The solar array technology gives up to 100% more energy than thin film PV and the trackers give up to 25% higher efficiency than other trackers.
In short, SunPower views this project as a “test case,” for future projects of this type. From their point of view, they listened to the experts, actually invited serious input from the public rather than viewing them as “crazies,” assumed that critical or negative comments can enlighten and so end up solving problems in order to improve a project, (imagine that?) and everything they learned from doing this project will inform future projects.
From the public comments, the public’s point of view can be summed up in one sentence: You’ve picked the worst possible site in all of California.
From the Planning Commission’s point of view, the one thing NOT up for serious challenge is the basic site itself.
Thus do SLO County projects turn into war zones.
Public Comment from The Usual Suspects:
NIMBYS, residents, ranchers, residents of Carrizo Plains with dire predictions of doom and destruction, pleas to substitute local rooftop systems vs an industrial array, the terror of Valley Fever (stirred up apparently from soil disturbance during building but not, apparently, stirred up from regular plowing and/or daily wind?), basin is in overdraft, the hydrology report not factual, need for a full new water study, the aggregate mine is allegedly under a legal (illegal?) cloud, solar arrays will destroy everything, including condors and eagles (Question: there was a solar array out there years ago. There were plenty of K-rats and kit foxes presently found on that site, so why didn’t that array “destroy everything?”), China is still burning coal so this project won’t have an impact on greenhouse gasses so don’t bother to build it, some of the wildflower fields may be disturbed under some arrays, construction (more people living out there) will put an overload on County Fire Dept’s ability to respond to an emergency (This from a County Fire Dept. employee, with a suggestion (hint) that SunPower needs to fund extra staff for the duration, which sounds like a good condition to add to the project).
Then there was the constantly implied notion that the Carrizo Plains are a mythic place, America’s Serengeti, home to a national monument, home to a huge array of rare, amazing creatures, a pure Eden that should never be befouled by technology and human development. Speakers brought along power point photos of vast fields of wildflowers and cute foxes. But not one picture of the tumble down abandoned houses, meth labs, run-down “ranches” with junker cars parked in the yard, abandoned dirt roads to nowhere, abandoned trailers, all of which surround the area where the (previous) and (present) solar project will be installed. Nor was there mention that California City was envisioned in the 1950’s as a development, get-rich-quick real estate deal; subdivide the whole place, sell lots, build houses and the hell with the K-rat. No, the whole valley was all transformed in the mind’s eye into one neatly restored National Monument, full of bouncing antelope and barking kit foxes. Eden without a chuffing tractor plowing up acres of K-rat habitat. (Irony: the early morning sight of a gaggle of pronghorns in a field of yummy human-planted alfalfa.)
There were predictions that the arrays would doom tourism (Actually, years ago, I made a trip out there specifically to see the (old) arrays, which were way cool. So, I suspect tourists will stop by the solar ranch on their way to the National Monument or Soda Lake.) There were objections that SunPower has agreed to only hire union workers, thereby cutting out local people who are non-union. (One of the sad by-products of our break-the-unions in order to create a wage race-to-the-bottom culture coming back to bite us in the butt?).
And a fascinating comment that K-rats communicate (to establish and defend their territory and attract mates) by drumming on the ground with their large kangaroo hind feet, so will the wind vibrating the solar panels transmit those vibrations into the earth thereby interfering with K-rat communication? Apparently the EIR didn’t address those chatty little thrumming feet, so I hope the Commission looks into that.
I left around the second break and I’m sure a variety of similar comments continued to the close of the meeting. The Commission will meet at the site, Wednesday, Feb 2, for a walkabout, and will reconvene in the BOS chambers (the one without energy-saving sky lights) on Thursday, Feb 3rd starting at 9 a.m,. It will finish up with public comment and then it’s possible the Commissioners will begin discussing and voting on at least part of this project.