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Posted on Wed, Jan. 26, 2011

Viewpoint: Carrizo solar: At what cost?

Susan Harvey
San Luis Obispo County should strive to be a leader in the renewable energy economy. But are we being leaders or following the lead of investors chasing federal stimulus dollars in the Carrizo Plain? Would the Carrizo projects really put us at the forefront of renewable energy?

How much do we need? Kern County alone has already approved gigawatts of wind turbines. Does anyone charged with reviewing the Carrizo solar projects actually know how many megawatts are needed to meet the state and federal renewable energy goals that are purported to justify the Carrizo projects? And how many are coming down the pike elsewhere?

Is distributed solar energy preferable to large central solar farms? Utility-scale solar developments will have great benefit, but the lagging state of our distributed energy programs is no reason to approve every large-scale project in every location proposed.

Why are our distributed solar programs lagging? With one-twentieth the land area of the United States and less than half the sunlight of Southern California cities, Germany has installed four times the solar energy capacity of the U.S. thanks to government-mandated fee structures.

Almost all of their solar panels are on roofs, parking lots and other already-developed spaces. Germany requires its utility companies to pay individuals for the electricity that they put into the grid from solar panels. The mandated rates guarantee a return on residents’ and businesses’ investments.

California has this type of feed-in tariff only for large-scale solar developments. UC Berkeley researchers estimate that a feed-in tariff system in California similar to Germany’s would generate 28,000 jobs each year for 10 years, $2 billion in tax revenue and $50 billion in private investment.

After construction, the Carrizo projects would bring a handful of permanent jobs and a paltry influx of cash. REC Solar, one of the many California “rooftop” companies, has more than 250 full time employees despite the lagging incentive programs. Real feed-in tariffs would make the distributed solar industry explode and create far more permanent jobs. It’s a proven model in Germany, Ontario and elsewhere.

Have impacts to endangered species been addressed and sufficiently reduced? The kit fox and other species on the Carrizo project sites are threatened and endangered because of habitat loss. These projects would convert another nine square miles of habitat (an area nearly the size of the city of San Luis Obispo).

The large expanses of arid, flat grasslands that these species inhabit have mostly been displaced by irrigated agriculture and urban development. These project sites each support more than 20 threatened and endangered species, as well as re-established populations of pronghorn antelope and tule elk. No other solar projects proposed in the state would impact habitat with such a diversity and abundance of rare species and no amount of mitigation can truly offset the loss of habitat.

Is there a better place? The point here isn’t to say, “put it in someone else’s backyard,” but to acknowledge the reality that there are scores of solar projects going into the San Joaquin Valley that aren’t displacing rare habitat and uniquely scenic landscapes.

Hundreds of thousands of acres of formerly irrigated crop lands have been rendered too toxic to grow crops. These lands are already retired from agriculture or are slated for retirement (for example, the Westlands Water District). Most support no rare species or much wildlife at all. These lands do not factor into the recovery strategies for listed species. The Carrizo does. The Carrizo is actually just a blip on the solar radar and it comes with a tremendous environmental cost.

The companies quietly developing solar projects on these impaired agricultural lands in the Central Valley will continue to do so with little resistance and at a substantially lower cost.

We can become renewable energy leaders by telling project proponents and the state and federal government that we wish to conserve our natural resources while transitioning­ to the renewable energy economy. We should be the first in the state to make the stand for the renewable energy models that are already proven, don’t require massive amounts of land and provide greater economic benefit. Putting projects of unprecedented size on rare habitat, in the name of “green” energy, would be the saddest of ironies. We have alternatives.

Susan Harvey is the president of North County Watch.

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