Photo Credit: Jeff Zirpoli 

Protecting Wildlife and Creating Renewable Energy on the Carrizo Plain

By Robert Moler, Assistant Field Supervisor, External Affairs

California’s Carrizo Plain is alive with a stunning diversity of rare and protected wildlife. The San Joaquin kit fox and the giant kangaroo rat both live in the Carrizo Plain and are protected under the California and Federal Endangered Species Acts. Federally protected vernal pool and longhorn fairy shrimp swim in the seasonal vernal pools speckled throughout the plain. The golden eagle, mountain plover, long-billed curlew, and loggerhead shrike fly above the plain and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts. The Carrizo Plain is a dwelling place for the American badger, pronghorn antelope, and tule elk.

The Carrizo Plain is also home to two new solar energy projects that are shining examples of how solar energy development can generate clean power and local jobs, while conserving and protecting threatened and endangered species.

Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty USFWS

Located in San Luis Obispo County, the Topaz Solar Farm and the California Valley Solar Ranch will be among the largest solar projects in the world. These energy development projects have added fuel to the local economy and momentum to the State of California and the Federal Government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gasses and become less reliant on fossil fuels.

When completed, the Topaz Solar Farm will span 3,500 acres and generate 550 megawatts of energy, enough to power 160,000 homes. The $2 billion project is creating 400 construction jobs and 15 longer term positions for ongoing operations. The Topaz Solar Farm is owned by MidAmerican Solar, an energy company controlled by billionaire investor Warren Buffet, and will be built, operated, and maintained by First Solar, the world’s largest builder of utility scale photovoltaic projects.

The California Valley Solar Ranch is being constructed on 1,500 acres and will generate 250 megawatts of energy, enough to power approximately 100,000 homes. It has created 350 construction jobs and will hire 12 more people for ongoing operations positions when the project is complete next year. The project is injecting an estimated $315 million of economic benefit into the local economy and is expected to generate a total of $10 million in tax revenues. NRG Solar, a subsidiary of NRG Energy Inc., owns the project which SunPower designed and is building.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company will buy the electricity generated from both projects under a 25-year power purchase agreements.

Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty USFWS

“California Valley Solar Ranch and other large-scale solar installations are creating hundreds of jobs during construction while protecting and conserving thousands of acres of land and helping California achieve its goal of 33% renewable energy by 2020,” said Howard Wenger, SunPower president, regions.

“The benefits to the county are both economic and environmental,” Jim Patterson, former chair of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, said about the California Valley Solar Ranch. “The project has reinvigorated the local economy.”

Both projects started construction in 2011. The Carrizo Plain was selected for these projects because of the amount of cloud-free days (an average of 315 per year) and the existing transmission lines available to distribute the electricity generated by the projects. The Carrizo Plain is a long, narrow valley 100 miles north of Los Angeles between San Luis Obispo and Bakersfield.

With protected wildlife resources in the area, the projects were designed in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.

Photo Credit: USFWS 

Shedding light on the projects’ potential impacts to these threatened and endangered species, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service out of the Sacramento Field Office worked with project managers and biological consultants to ensure the solar facilities are built with attention to wildlife conservation. Of primary concern was the loss of habitat for the San Joaquin kit fox and protection of the fox’s dispersal corridor. Loss of habitat for the giant kangaroo rat and the golden eagle were also a major concern.

The working relationship between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and project partners involved over two years of negotiations to identify appropriate measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful impacts to species in the construction and ongoing operation of the solar facilities.

First Solar and SunPower both committed to a high standard for conservation. In consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the companies designed a comprehensive conservation plan that will protect more than 19,000 acres of lands in the Carrizo Plain. This land will be restored and managed solely for the purpose of conserving the San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, and golden eagle. The protected lands will also benefit the numerous other plants and animals that inhabit the area. The lands will be protected with a conservation easement or turned over to the State of California Department of Fish and Game in fee title. The companies protected an additional 8,000 acres of land to satisfy local and regional concerns. The companies also provided a substantial endowment to assure these lands will be managed effectively for protected species in perpetuity.

Along with preserving and managing lands for protected species, the companies have funded and implemented a cutting-edge research and monitoring program with the goal to better understand the effects of solar development and identify methods to conserve the species in the future.

With all of the conservation efforts meeting the recovery objectives established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, First Solar and SunPower had the green-light for construction and received all federal, state, and local permits. “These projects are a success story that shows how the Endangered Species Act can add conservation value to development projects,” said Susan Moore, Field Supervisor with the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office.

As a part of the conservation strategy, the companies agreed to restore the projects’ sites back to their natural condition in 35 years after the projects have served their useful life. The Topaz Solar Farm is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The California Valley Solar Ranch will begin generating power in September, and will be completed in 2013.