Opposition to Solar Plant Highlights Problems for Pragmatic Environmentalists

Written by Nick Andre

In San Luis Obispo County, California construction is about to begin on a 500-megawatt solar power plant known as the Topaz Solar Project.  The massive plant, being developed by First Solar, would be the second largest solar power plant in the world, powering an estimated 160,000 homes. The project has jumped through all the required regulatory hoops including having an approved environmental impact report and receiving county, state, and federal permits.  It even has a purchase power agreement in place with Pacific Gas & Electric and yesterday the Department of Energy announced it would extend the developers a $1.93 Billion loan guarantee. Everything looked on track to make history, that is until three appeals were filed against the project, one being from a coalition of environmental groups.

The appeals were from area resident Michael Strobridge, Berkeley resident Jody Stegman and a faction of environmental groups including Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, North County Watch and Carrizo Commons. Each appeal argues that the proposed site of the plant, the Carrizo Plain, contains rare and endangered wildlife whose populations will be threatened. The specific species cited are the San Joaquin kit fox, longhorn and vernal pool fairy shrimp, and the golden eagle.

The reality of this situation is that a major project to develop a power plant producing the cleanest and lowest impact form of energy know to man, is attempting to be blocked by the very people who should be championing its construction. It is an absurdity that local environmentalists would attempt to block a solar plant capable of producing enough power for every home in all of San Luis Obispo County (117,362 housing units in the county according to the 2010 US Census, versus the 160,000 homes the plant can power), in an area that is sparsely populated. This is purely zero emission power, no pollutants, no negative impact on the water, air or soil, yet concerns over wildlife somehow come to the forefront.

Do not get me wrong, I am an environmentalist (a pragmatic one) and believe wildlife should be considered in any development such as this, and they have. The environmental impact report for the project addressed these concerns and the design of the project was altered to be sure that there was minimal impact to these species. Kit fox specialists were brought in by First Solar to help design a species friendly project. The solar panels from this project will not simply be lying on the ground, blocking any wildlife from entering the fields. There are rows of posts placed in the earth, spaced widely apart with the panels attached at the top. This gives enough clearance for any wildlife to pass through the fields unobstructed. This would be little difference from the current use of the land, which is agricultural. Furthermore, the construction of transmission lines are not even necessary because they already exist along the property. It is not as if a coal fired power plant was being built where pollutants would poison nearly all the wildlife in the area. This is the most low-impact power plant possible, yet there is still opposition.

Pragmatic environmentalists must come together in supporting projects such as Topaz Solar and also voicing opposition to those who try to stop what is in the ultimate best interest of our entire planet. The need for more energy exists and our current forms of energy are harming our planet, therefore if projects like Topaz Solar are not built, the future for all species of this planet are in peril. The pollution and climate change effects of traditional power generation do far more damage to every species on this earth than do solar panels to the San Joaquin kit fox and the golden eagle.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2.4 million people each year die prematurely (more than 14 years earlier than expected) from air pollution. Right hear in California, in the Los Angeles Basin and San Joaquin Valley, nearly 3,800 people die prematurely each year from the air pollution that exceeds federal guidelines. That doesn’t even take into account the air pollution that is at or under federal guidelines. Furthermore, there is a massive positive economic impact of cleaning up our air, the EPA estimates that in 2010 alone, the benefits of Clean Air Act programs will total about $110 billion.  As you can see there are huge benefits in transitioning to clean energy, without even taking into account that they are legally necessary, at least in California. Earlier this year the state approved a law that would require 33% of it’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020. In California’s case it is imperative that these projects get built quickly, and the minuscule risks that might be present to the wildlife in places like Carrizo Plain, far outweigh the benefits to the people and the wildlife of the entire planet.

This opposition is not an isolated incident either, the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch, also in San Luis Obispo County, is currently fighting a lawsuit brought against it for danger to the wildlife. In addition, earlier this year federal officials halted a $2 billion solar project in San Bernardino County, California after pressure from environmental groups regarding the desert tortoise. Thankfully, that project was just allowed to resume. Even at a Financing Renewable Energy conference in San Francisco that I attended last month, one of the biggest complaints from utility scale developers was the frequent legal opposition over environmental concerns, along with overly complex regulatory processes.

By tolerating lawsuits, appeals, and objections by the small number of extreme environmentalists, the entire environmental movement gets cast into a hypocritical light. The general population sees us pushing for such projects, only to object them when they come to fruition. We must have a united stand against the extreme organizations that wish to stop these developments. Pressure can be put on the leaders of these organizations by other environmental groups for them to drop their opposition. Alternatively, groups can try to persuade donors who are funding the opposition groups to reconsider. Pragmatic environmentalists must also make sure their voices are heard during committee meetings, town halls, permit hearings, through letters to newspapers, ect… It is unfortunate that such a difficult fight must be fought to make progress with renewable energy, but it’s a battle worth pursuing.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will hear the appeals to block the Topaz Solar Project on July 12th.

Update 7/15/11: The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected all appeals. The opponents have vowed to file lawsuits as a result.


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About the author

Nick Andre

Nick is the Managing Editor of ModernSerenity.com and the Managing Director of Kumani Inc., a Certified Green web development and business consulting firm. A graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has deep passions for nutrition, organic agriculture, renewable energy, and the environment, which led him to found Modern Serenity in 2009. Nick is also a bit of a political junkie and is involved in environmental advocacy, land conservation efforts, and more.