Plan to build giant solar farm in Calif. comes before judge

Aug 09, 2011 By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News

A proposal to build one of the world's largest solar farms south of Silicon Valley had its day in court Monday as a long-simmering battle between the San Francisco Bay Area investors supporting the project and environmentalists who say it will harm wildlife finally came before a judge.

At the center of the debate is a $1.8 billion, 399-megawatt solar farm proposed for Panoche Valley, an arid expanse of rangeland and barbed wire 50 miles southeast of Hollister. Last year, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors voted to approve the project, saying it would make rustic San Benito County - know more for its cattle and condors than - a national center of clean energy.

But the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and a group of local residents known as Save Panoche Valley sued to block it, claiming the 4 million solar panels that would be constructed across the roughly 3,200 acres west of Interstate 5 would harm endangered species and disrupt the rural character of the area.

"Solar obviously is very critical. No one disputes the necessity for solar energy," said Rose Zoia of Santa Rosa, Calif., the attorney representing the three environmental groups, during oral arguments. "The issue here is that it is improper on this site."

During the one-day hearing Monday in San Benito County Superior Court before Judge Robert O'Farrell, Zoia argued that the county made three key errors when it approved the project. First, it failed to fully protect several endangered species on the site, such as the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the San Joaquin kit fox and the giant kangaroo rat.

Second, she said, the county violated state law by not thoroughly considering alternatives to the project in its environmental study, such as a 30,000-acre landscape of fallow farmland 50 miles away in Kings and Fresno counties. That property, in the Westlands Water District, is damaged by selenium that leached from the soil from years of irrigation but still would be suitable for the photovoltaic panels.

And finally, the county violated California's primary law that protects farmland, the Williamson Act, when it allowed the landowners who had optioned property for the solar farm to cancel their Williamson Act contracts early, Zoia said. Farmers and ranchers typically sign 10-year contracts promising not to develop their lands, in exchange for tax breaks. Attorneys for the developer worked to systematically rebut the claims, arguing that the environmental groups were nit-picking a 2,100-page environmental impact report that cost $800,000 and took more than a year to prepare.

"This is a typical kitchen-sink attack with the hope that a flaw may be found," said Jason Retterer of Salinas, Calif., an attorney for the developers.

Retterer said the other proposed site was not practical because the developer, Solargen, controlled none of the land and it would take years and millions of dollars to start the project over. He noted that the developers have agreed to set aside 23,000 acres adjacent to the for wildlife and cattle in permanent protection. And he said the environmental groups are overstating the ecological value of Panoche Valley.

"It's a windblown moonscape with sporadic cattle grazing," he said. A decision from O'Farrell is expected this fall. The case is symbolic of a recent trend across California and other parts of the nation. As concerns over global warming have grown and with it, government and private funding for huge solar and wind projects, the main opponents have often been environmental groups. The issue has split the environmental movement, with some conservationists argue that they need to change their approach while others stick to the lawsuits they have traditionally used to block logging, mining and development.

Last month, for example, California Gov. Jerry Brown filed a brief asking a federal court to deny a request by an environmental group seeking an injunction to stop a $2.2 billion solar power project in the Mojave Desert. The Western Watersheds Project wants to stop construction of the 370-megawatt Ivanpah project because of desert tortoises at the site. Brown signed a law in April requiring California's utilities to provide 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

"California has a strong and demonstrated interest in increasing its renewable energy and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions," Brown's brief said. "The court should take these interests into account, and deny Western Watersheds' request for a preliminary injunction on the grounds that an injunction is not in the public interest." Meanwhile, ownership of the San Benito County project has changed hands.

The project was conceived by Solargen, a small Cupertino, Calif., company run by Michael Peterson, a former Goldman Sachs vice president. But Solargen, which had never built a large solar project, had difficulty raising funding and securing an agreement with PG&E to purchase power from the site. In April, a company called PV2 Energy bought Solargen and 85 percent of the project. PV2 is controlled by Industry Capital, a San Francisco investment firm that manages $1.1 billion. Solargen changed its name to Nevo Energy, which retained 15 percent ownership.

Peterson said Monday he still hopes to break ground by 2013.

"Lawsuits are part of the process in California," he said. "We're still very optimistic."

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kaypee
5 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2011
I can't help thinking of the shade created underneath the solar panels. Won't the availability of shelter from direct sunlight result in population increases in certain populations. Such shade doesn't change the amount of rainfall or water available, but may alter the local ground surface humidity underneath the solar panels.
Cave_Man
2 / 5 (12) Aug 09, 2011
Shade like that will kill plants and reduce food availability for those endangered species, not provide a cool place for them to live.....

Not to mention the land will probably be cleared to some extent during the instal process and therefore become an immediate threat to the local fauna and flora.

That's why studies cost a million dollars and they dont just pull "facts" from people who comment on internet articles.
Techno1
3.1 / 5 (7) Aug 09, 2011
Environmentalists who are this extreme should be considered mentally incompetent.

This is easily the cleanest form of energy available, even cleaner than wind power, since there are fewer generators involved, therefore fewer rare-earth metals, etc.

These people should get a life.

We know from historical large scale construction projects that the amount of animal life in the area often goes up after the project is complete, with the possible exception of Dams and levees...
Techno1
3.3 / 5 (9) Aug 09, 2011
Cave_Man:

What the hell is anyone supposed to do for power then?

Oh wait, you actually want us back in the stone age?

Can't use Fossil fuels, can't use nuclear, can't use solar or wind either, even though they have almost no pollution at any phase of the process...

You guys are lunatics.

Sorry, that's not PC, but it's just true.

Something is wrong with you people if you complain about wind and solar power plants destroying the environment.

The whole point of the damn things is that they are thousands of times cleaner than anything else...

Seriously, get over it, and hopefully grow a brain along the way too...
emsquared
2.6 / 5 (5) Aug 09, 2011
Something is wrong with you people if you complain about wind and solar power plants destroying the environment.

OR is something in fact wrong with the people who think CO2 is a bigger threat to biodiversity and habitat quality via the indirect threat of climate change than it is compared to the direct threats of habitat fragmentation and destruction and general poor management (over consumption, invasives, etc.) and pollution?

I'm more of a mind to focus on the direct threats. Because while climate volatility is absolutely a threat to an already degraded environment, it is unclear how much we can do to prevent climate change. Do you disagree? The direct threats we know what they are and how to approach them, we just have to muster the will to take action to improve enviro-health directly and thereby resistance to climate change.

Renewables are absolutely a part of this direct approach, however I urge you to consider carefully how/where they're employed. What do you think?
emsquared
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2011
I should also mention that addressing many of the direct threats would simultaneously reduce CO2. So, you see if you make the capture and sequestration of CO2 your goal, you are missing the front-half of the equation. Solve the front-half of the equation and you will still do much for the back, CO2, half, by preventing the emission of it in the first place. Which while this is part of the present AGW Green movement, it is not the goal, so you still have the standard environmental quality damages occurring.
tk1
not rated yet Aug 09, 2011
@ Techno1, you for got to mention those damm dams,. damm them dams!
Burnerjack
4.6 / 5 (5) Aug 09, 2011
Environmentalists against solar. We need a new word in our lexicon. IRONIC just doesn't seem to do it justice. Although I believe there are true environmentalists out there who feel proper husbandry of the world is important, where poisoning the land we draw our food from seems wrong, etc.
Sometimes though, environmentalists are really just shitheads using the term "environmentalist" to pursue there own agenda. Sounds like this is one of those cases. As far as "alternate site" goes, this just smacks of NIMBY. Pure and simple.
Burnerjack
5 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2011
Tk1 Damn it! I just wasn't thinking about Hydroelectrics! Damn it!
ryggesogn2
1.9 / 5 (9) Aug 09, 2011
Just another example of 'progressive' NIBYs. Walter Cronkite, Chomsky, and Ted Kennedy opposed wind turbines off of Cape Cod.

Anyone here ever been out to the Mohave desert? The shade will act like drilling platforms in the ocean and attract flora and fauna.
Jeddy_Mctedder
2.1 / 5 (11) Aug 09, 2011
these aren't environmentalists. these guys are funded by big coal and big oil. they are undercover agents working on behalf of anti-solar interests.
Flakk
3.6 / 5 (5) Aug 09, 2011
Why not just put up solar panels on roofs in the city? That's where you need the power anyway.
PPihkala
2.5 / 5 (4) Aug 09, 2011
I'm not against solar, so to me this story tells that these environmental people are trying to tell that this selected plot of land is not suitable, because there would be more suitable plot instead. Of course the building party don't like this other plot because they don't own it currently, like they do with this their proposed one. So is it nutty to tell builders to consider this other lot, because it seems to be better suited to power production, with less lost values, like endangered wildlife?
Techno1
1.8 / 5 (6) Aug 09, 2011
Why not just put up solar panels on roofs in the city? That's where you need the power anyway.


Not enough space to produce the power, and that also requires private investment by individuals.

The company would otherwise get screwed, as they'd actually have to pay leases to use people's roofs if they tried to do that, so they would make no money at all.

For some reason, probably because Glenn Beck has been lying about it half his life, people have the impression wind and solar are "unworkable" even with huge government subsidies.

The reality is both wind and solar actually are already cheaper than fossil fuels over the lifetime of the product, people just don't realize it yet, OR they have the NIMBY thing.

Wind power with the most advanced modern turbines is up to 30 times cheaper per KWh over the lifetime of the turbine compared to the price of the same energy value of the coal alone. You have about the same transmission lines either way...
Techno1
3.7 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2011
One of the BIGGEST problems in our country right now is LIARS.

Lying politicians.
Lying energy companies.
shadfurman
4.8 / 5 (5) Aug 09, 2011
Shade like that will kill plants and reduce food availability for those endangered species, not provide a cool place for them to live.....

Not to mention the land will probably be cleared to some extent during the instal process and therefore become an immediate threat to the local fauna and flora.

That's why studies cost a million dollars and they dont just pull "facts" from people who comment on internet articles.


Hate to be the obvioustician here... but LOTS of plants grow in shade...
Techno1
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 09, 2011
Hate to be the obvioustician here... but LOTS of plants grow in shade...


I'm becoming more and more convinced that at least half of our civilization has gone completely insane.
Grizzled
4 / 5 (3) Aug 09, 2011
When they were proposing solar power farms on a large scale (not just a toy for demo purposes) they had it pointed out to them: -- And what do you think happens to the ecosystems under those panels deprived of light, in perpetual semi-darkness, with changed rainfall patterns too? Surely those systems will suffer?

The response of course was indignants shouts and yells at the conservative retrogressives standing in the path of progress to the ever so great clean and green future.

Now that it's about to happen - doh, the damned ecosystems don't like it. Who could have thought...
Shelgeyr
3 / 5 (6) Aug 10, 2011
These "environmentalists" aren't NIMBYs, they are BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody)!

I have to tip my hat to a dear friend (I wish I could take credit, but alas...)
Osiris1
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 10, 2011
Sounds like a 'command decision' is sorely needed. Enough is enough already!? Like the developer said...this is a moonscape of a dry desert. If one cannot develope solar hear, then let us all go back to nuclear. This place is a natural for nuclear. Now we are using 'eminent domain' to displace homeowners and small businesses to take land to make new 'reservations' so that some 'casino indians' can take it to make a casino. And this is called the 'public interest'. It appears that no matter what or where the necessary energy developement is proposed, some constituency will appear to defend critters that no one seemed to care about before. Hence the need for a command decision from a strong government having the resolution to enforce it. Use the 'eminent domain' for the common good, its' proper use! Not to build casinos that suck the life out of communities to enrich a drunken wife beatin few, but to strengthen the nation and save us from alien religions.
maccaroo
5 / 5 (2) Aug 10, 2011
No doubt the shade produced by the panels would deter certain sun-loving plants. It would also promote other semi-shade-loving plants. I reckon the lizard, fox, rat and other native fauna would likely benefit from the new plants just as they would from the former ones.

In addition, as mentioned above, offshore platforms have proven to attract life. There is no reason to believe that the same won't happen here in the shade. It might be more prudent to perform a smaller scale experiment regarding 'shade introduction' in a similar environment. In fact, there are sure to be examples of this already.

@emsquared - Sounds like you're more comfortable looking small scale and short term than global and long term. Apparently there are species going extinct every day. Perhaps by reducing the ideal habitat of your precious lizard, fox and rat we could save a few polar bears, etc...
emsquared
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2011
Sounds like you're more comfortable looking small scale and short term than global and long term.

Your "global and long term" is wholly in reference to a belief that we can steer the climate of any given ecosystem to where "we want it". Relying on a demonstrably flawed assumption that average global temp is the determinant of a given ecosystem's health. It ignores the fact that the battle for any given ecosystem's health takes place in that ecosystem via how it's resources (flora, fauna, mineral, water, space) are used, and that a changing climate is only a threat to an already endangered environment. A healthy ecosystem will shift with the climate. Do you deny these principles? Please elaborate.

Furthermore, your classification of my outlook being short term is wholly inaccurate. The types of changes needed to fix the "small scale" direct threats, and indeed for any hope of long term change, are cultural and systemic. Changes that aggregate into very large scale and long term.
emsquared
1 / 5 (1) Aug 10, 2011
I reckon the ... native fauna would likely benefit from the new plants...
...
Perhaps by reducing the ideal habitat of your precious lizard, fox and rat we could save a few polar bears, etc...

First, my above statements are not to make a judgement as to this specific case. If you re-read them, I think you'll see that, only the nature of "less CO2 above all else".

Second, you seem to have no concept of co-evolved species and invasive species, and the latter's effect on an ecosystem consisting only of the former.

Third, you seem to be placing more value on some species above others. This is inherently flawed. The important thing is net biodiversity. One thing we know for a fact about biodiversity is that the warmer the climate, the higher the biodiversity. This applies, nearly unilaterally (with the exception of deserts), from the tropics to the poles.

To assume global warming is only going to create more desert is patently false and intellectually disingenuous.
unknownorgin
1 / 5 (3) Aug 10, 2011
First we are told we must have "green" energy so now that solar power is ready for large scale use we are told NIBY (not in my backyard). This one of many examples that prove that enviromental protest is not really about saving some animal or plant as much as it is about having the power to stop progress and control something for the pure satisfaction that power and control seem to give some people.
knikiy
not rated yet Aug 11, 2011
The worldwide depression should help scale back energy demands.
ryggesogn2
1.7 / 5 (6) Aug 11, 2011
The worldwide depression should help scale back energy demands.

That's the 'progressives' plan.
They are always complaining about too much consumption. An economic depression does the job quite nicely and the 'progressive' doesn't have to persuade anyone.
Vendicar_Decarian
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2011
RyggTard... I asked two questions (among many) and you have continued to refuse to answer them.

Here they are again...

---
So you would agree then that children have the same rights as adults. They are part of your "all" category aren't they? Or are rights not universal for all people in contradiction of your Randite ideology?

I take it that you believe - as do all other Libertarian/Randites that laws against drug use, prostitution and so called "victim-less" crimes are also illegitimate and should be abolished?
---

I continue to await your answer.