Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: California Solar Projects Will Provide Clean Energy and Restore Habitats for Wildlife
California-Nevada Offices , December 13, 2012
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The Carrizo Plain in Southern California.
The Carrizo Plain in Southern California. - Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty/USFWS

Roughly 15 miles wide and stretching 50 miles along the base of the Temblor Mountains, the Carrizo Plain is home to the 250,000-acre Carrizo Plain National Monument, and where 2,000 year old Native American pictographs documenting early human settlement can be found. The Plain’s immense grasslands, woodlands and vernal pools are home to an amazing diversity of wildlife, including more than a dozen rare plants, animals and birds protected by state and federal laws. It is also a place blessed with abundant sunshine, averaging 315 cloud-free days a year, making this expansive home for wildlife an ideal location to develop clean solar power.

Last year, developers broke ground for two large-scale solar power projects on the Carrizo Plain: the Topaz Solar Farm (First Solar), and the California Valley Solar Ranch (Sun Power). Located in San Luis Obispo County, the projects occupy 5,000 acres and can produce 800 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 400,000 homes. The California Valley Solar Ranch began generating power in September, and will be fully operational in 2013. The Topaz Solar Farm is scheduled to be completed in 2014 and will be the largest photovoltaic power plant in the world.

While the benefits of renewable energy development are widely known, its development in a place like the Carrizo Plain comes with risks and responsibilities to a significant number of rare and protected wildlife and the habitats that sustain them.

The Carrizo Plain is a unique natural area alive with a stunning diversity of rare and protected wildlife. The San Joaquin kit fox and the giant kangaroo rat, both protected by the California and federal Endangered Species Acts, live here. 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 federal Migratory Bird Treaty and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Acts. The Plain is also dwelling place for the American badger, pronghorn antelope and tule elk.

The Topaz Solar Farm and the California Valley Solar Ranch are among dozens of projects in a growing renewable energy portfolio for biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region. Through its field offices in Sacramento, Ventura, Carlsbad and a new office in Palm Springs, Calif., the Region provides environmental review for projects to ensure protection of rare species, bald and golden eagles and other wildlife in California.

The Region has been involved in renewable energy consultations since 2009, when the State of California and Department of the Interior signed agreements to work cooperatively on renewable energy development. Over the past two years, the Region’s biologists have consulted or are currently consulting on 31 solar and wind energy projects that when completed, could produce more than eight billion watts (8.246 gig watts) of electricity; enough to power more than 16 million homes in California and Nevada. Project planning and permitting can take two years, and involve multiple agencies and stakeholders. Service biologists work with experts from industry and other state and federal agencies to develop, collect, process and interpret geographic, biological, land use and other data that will assist developers to build sound conservation strategies that provide for a project’s operation while avoiding or minimizing impacts to wildlife.

As a key member of the multi-agency Renewable Energy Action Team (REAT) and Renewable Energy Policy Group (REPG), the Region has been party to an unprecedented level of state and federal coordination to advance renewable energy and protect a wide range of wildlife. The Region has worked with the Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Game, and the California Energy Commission to streamline permit processes for projects on federal and non-federal lands. In Nevada, the Region was part of an interagency effort to approve the first commercial solar project on tribal trust land of the Moapa Band of Paiute Indians near Las Vegas.

Shedding light on the Topaz Solar Farm and the California Valley Solar Ranch projects’ potential impacts to threatened and endangered species, biologists with the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife 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.

Over two years of discussions, Service biologists and project partners identified appropriate measures to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful impacts to species during construction and operation of the solar facilities. Both First Solar and SunPower committed to a high standard for conservation. In consultation with the Service, the companies designed a comprehensive conservation plan that will restore and protect more than 19,000 acres of lands in the Carrizo Plain managed solely for conserving the San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat, and golden eagle. The restored land will bring along a whole host of other plants and animals that inhabit the area, helping to keep the natural communities intact.

“The result of our consultation with the project developers resulted in a conservation success story showing how the Endangered Species Act can add conservation value to development of large-scale energy projects,” said Susan Moore, field supervisor with the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office.

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.

In addition, the companies are funding and implementing a cutting-edge research and monitoring program with the goal to better understand the effects of solar development and identify methods to conserve species that will inform and guide future development. The companies also agreed to restore the projects’ sites back to their natural condition in 35 years after the projects have served their useful life.

The California Valley Solar Ranch is being constructed on 1,500 acres and will generate 250 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 100,000 homes. The Topaz Solar Farm spans 3,500 acres and will generate 550 megawatts of electricity, enough for 300,000 homes. Pacific Gas and Electric will buy electricity from the projects' under a 25-year agreement.

Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov
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