Solar project draws protest

Measures to protect farms and wildlife concern group

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMay 30, 2012 

The first large-scale solar energy project proposed for Merced County is drawing criticism from farmland advocates and environmental groups.

The Quinto Solar Project, planned for more than 1,000 acres outside of Santa Nella, would create a 110-megawatt photovoltaic facility -- enough power for about 40,000 homes.

The project's owner, SunPower Corp., is expected to sell the renewable energy to Southern California Edison under a 20-year contract.

While the solar installation is being touted as a boon for the local economy, concerns have been voiced that the project's plan doesn't go far enough to address negative effects to wildlife and agriculture.

"I hope they dramatically alter their mitigation plan," said Amanda Carvajal, executive director for Merced County Farm Bureau. "This is very precedent-setting. That's our biggest concern."

Worries around the project include cutting off travel pathways for kit foxes and other animals, as well as the future viability of farming on the land in question.

"This is a temporary facility for 35 years, but they don't have a real plan for (farmland) reclamation," Carvajal said, adding that the land includes about 500 acres of "prime farmland," and more than 300 acres of "productive farmland."

SunPower officials said they will continue to work with local officials and groups. However, they believe significant mitigation steps already have been laid out in the project documents.

"It's important to note that SunPower has incorporated many measures to protect and enhance wildlife on the site, including a design that creates protected open space to ensure clear passage, kit fox-friendly fencing and escape dens, and a commitment to use no pesticides or rodenticides," said Ingrid Ekstrom, spokeswoman for SunPower. "The project will support continued agricultural use in the form of prescriptive sheep grazing on site."

The Los Banos Chamber of Commerce board of directors has voiced support for the project.

SunPower estimates the solar facility will bring $81.2 million into the local economy, $5.2 million in tax revenues to the county and other public agencies during construction and operation, and will create about 315 construction jobs.

A draft environmental impact report for the project was submitted in April. The comment period ended May 21.

Because of the extensive comments submitted on the project, county planning officials said they expect a final EIR will not be submitted until late June.

If the Planning Commission approves the project, the Board of Supervisors will then have to vote on whether to remove the land's agricultural preserve designation under the Williamson Act.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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