In an effort to bring sustainable energy to California, two solar farms are striving to lay groundwork in the Carrizo Plain amid both praise and derision.
The Carrizo Plain is located near California Valley in San Luis Obispo County. The two solar farms — the Topaz Solar Farm, being developed by First Solar and the California Valley Solar Ranch, developed by SunPower — aim to power approximately 260,000 homes — 160,000 homes from the Topaz Farm and 100,000 from the California Valley Solar Ranch.
The farms will prevent carbon dioxide emissions as well. The Topaz Solar Farm projects a displacement of 290,000 metric tons (or 55,000 cars) of carbon dioxide a year, according to a First Solar press release.
The solar farms will also bring an economic benefit by providing direct employment of 470 workers and indirectly 630 workers from increased economic spending by employees, according to a San Luis Obispo County study.
Alan Bernheimer, the corporate communications director of First Solar, said the Topaz Solar Farm will produce $190 million in revenue, $43 million in tax benefits and $16 million in sales and property taxes.
“(The solar farms make) San Luis Obispo a leader in solar energy,” Bernheimer said. “It might help jump start a solar economy.”
Brian Croshal, a mechanical engineering senior and president of the Renewable Energy Club (REC), said he is thrilled about the plans for the solar farms.
“This is definitely a great step in the right direction in terms of scaling up our renewable energy production capacity,” he said.
The solar farms also take away from the need for nuclear energy in the county. With the Japan Fukushima Daiichi Power Plant’s overheated reactors from the tsunami still emitting radiation, some are worried about San Luis Obispo’s own Diablo Nuclear Power Plant.
Patrick Bernard, a mechanical engineering graduate student and former president of REC, said a significant concern about the nuclear power plant is its location near the San Andreas fault.
“It’s built on a fault line and is located a mile away from another,” Bernard said. “The equipment is outdated and is constantly having to be repaired.”
Yet, with all of the economic and environmental benefits, the solar farms also have some faults.
Some complaints from locals include “increased traffic, loss of farmland, noise from truck trips and visuals,” according to the San Luis Obisop County website.
Bernheimer said, however, noise from the solar panels, once completed, will be minimal. He also added that noise from construction will be in small phases because the panels are to be constructed at separate times to avoid noise in one area.
“(We’re) only building for about a week (in each phase), so it’s not a long-term issue,” Bernheimer said.
A more serious issue with the solar farms is its locations in the endangered San Joaquin kit fox’s habitat. With the Topaz Solar Farm taking up approximately 3,500 acres for its solar panels and the California Valley Solar Ranch taking up 1,966 acres, both intrude on the kit fox’s environment.
Bernheimer said First Solar has taken the necessary precautions to help the kit fox by proposing a fence to protect the species from coyotes, offering more vegetation in areas that were once farmland and securing 10,000 acres for mitigation — or preservation of — land.
“We think we’ve done a tremendous amount to reduce the biological impact,” Bernheimer said. “We believe it will be a better environment for the kit fox.”
The Solar Ranch has also secured 2,399 acres for mitigation land.
Pamela Flick, the California program coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife, a national wildlife preservation group, said the solar farms will still intrude on the kit fox’s habitat. She said the solar farms have not finished preservation plans.
“I think it’s very assumptive to think that putting thousands and thousands of acres of solar panels … will have beneficial effects,” Flick said.
Although First Solar is striving to protect the kit foxes from predators, coyotes are smart and persistent and will find a way to get their prey, Flick said. She also said the structuring of the solar farms could provide a hiding place for coyotes. The large number of solar panels creating shade in an area that once had no shade will affect native vegetation and wildlife, which along with other construction and structure factors, may affect the ecosystem of the area.
Flick said Defenders for Wildlife and other conservation groups are not against renewable energy; rather, they support renewable energy sources, but feel there are other locations in which the solar farms would be both more efficient and less intrusive.
“This kind of development cannot (be built) everywhere,” Flick said. “What does it say about us to throw species off the lifeboat of recovery to meet our renewable energy goals?”
The solar farms are experiments of epic proportions, Flick said. The full economic impact may not be realized until the farms are actually built and in function. As the Carrizo Plains Solar Farm canceled its plans to build a farm — which was going to be a more solar-thermal energy plant than just solar, Bermheimer said — this elicited Topaz Solar Farm to buy that land.
Since Cal Poly has solar panels, “owned, operated, and maintained by SunEdison, North America’s largest solar energy provider,” on the Engineering West building that produce 230,000 kilowatt hours annually, Bernheimer said he hopes the solar farm will be a good educational opportunity for students. Once the solar farm is finished, there will be a visitor’s center for students and other visitors to learn about the solar farms.
“If classes at Cal Poly wanted to come out and study this project, (they are welcome),” Bernheimer said.
Bernard said he is happy California is pursuing renewable and sustainable energy because of California’s dependence on non-renewable and volatile power sources.
“It’s about time that California starts investing more wisely into their energy infrastructure,” Bernard said.