Solar power plan under fire in Panoche Valley


Sandwiched between I-5 and Hollister in San Benito County, the Panoche Valley may be as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get.

For rancher Rani Douglas it is somewhere special.

"We stood on a hill and looked out over the valley and I said. 'This is where I want to spend the rest of my life.' It never occurred to me that I might be in view of two-story solar panels," he says.

The valley could one day provide enough electricity to power 315,000 homes across the state.

"It has 90 percent of the solar of the Mojave Desert," Michael Peterson with Solargen says.

His company wants to build one of the largest solar power projects in the nation in the Panoche Valley. 1.2 million solar panels could cover an area the size of 3,500 football fields.

"It truly is land that is flat and previously farmed, disturbed. It's perfect for solar," Peterson says.

On the other hand, Douglas says, "I think it's a very irresponsible place to build a solar facility."

"It has power lines going over the top of it and in California it's very difficult to find transmission lines," Peterson would argue.

At the same time, Douglas says, "As a rancher, it could possible jeopardize the recovery and possibly cause the extinction of some animals."

"We are doing things that others have not," Peterson says. "We're raising the panels so that sheep can graze, because species here are used to, and thrive on a grazed environment."

Similar debates are being played out around California as more and more companies try to build new power facilities and Californians weigh the benefits of green power against the impact on open spaces.

Peterson says, "It is very difficult to build any structure on land in California."

There are roughly 150 solar projects seeking permits to operate in California, mostly in Southern California deserts. Stringent environmental reviews, political wrangling and lengthy permitting processes are keeping many companies from breaking ground.

In the Mojave Desert, one company had to scrap plans for a plant because of concerns over endangered squirrel habitat. Another had to reduce the size of its plant because it might disturb desert tortoise.

Then, there are the arguments over what should be off-limits. California Senator Dianne Feinstein has introduced legislation that would establish national monuments in the area.

The solar industry says the federal government has also historically been slow to embrace large-scale solar projects.

"There are actually zero solar projects on public lands in the country right now," says Monique Hanis with the Solar Energy Industries Association. "To put that in perspective, over the last two decades, 74,000 permits have been issued for oil and gas projects."

California however, has laid out the welcome mat for renewable energy. Last year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order mandating that 33 percent of California's electricity come from renewable sources like wind or solar.

"I wouldn't say this is easy," Michael Picker says. "It's not easy for any of these projects and frankly, this is a green on green issue. It's not greedy coal or greedy oil companies that are really the big problem here. It's variations of our environmental goals."

Picker is the governor's senior advisor for renewable energy facilities.

"I am pretty confident that we are going make real progress just in this one year," he says.

Picker says the state will need to move quickly if it is going to take advantage of billions in tax credits and grants for green power. They expire on December 1 and that could mean $5 billion to $10 billion in stimulus money just for the largest projects.

Picker says, "Those federal stimulus dollars will mean jobs here in California starting late this fall."

Solargen says it expects to hire as many as 200 people to build the Panoche Valley project. Fifty will remain after it is built.

Unemployment in San Benito County currently stands at nearly 22 percent. Peterson says, if we don't build plants like his here, they will be built over state lines.

"Solargen, they are being built in Arizona. They are being built in Nevada. Then, they are wheeling the electricity into California," Peterson explains. "The net result of that is we don't get the jobs. We don't get the clean air. But, what we do get is the higher electricity prices."

Some residents of the Panoche Valley say no number of jobs or megawatts of green energy will make up for their loss. They want the project to go somewhere else. A compromise is out of the question.

"No, I don't think so. Not for this valley," Douglas says.

Solargen says it plans to file its draft environmental impact report next week. That puts the Panoche project on track to get final approval this fall.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.

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