Huge solar farms proposed just south of Merced County

09/22/2009 9:29 AM

09/22/2009 9:34 AM

A pair of solar farms proposed for the Panoche Hills of western Fresno County and eastern San Benito County could become the biggest installations of their kind in the world.

Solargen Energy Inc., based in Cupertino, has submitted an application to Fresno County planners for its Panoche Ranch Solar Farm on 2,600 acres of rangeland near the Little Panoche Reservoir. Solar photovoltaic panels spread across the acreage would produce up to 250 megawatts of electricity.

A few miles down Little Panoche Road, across the San Benito County line, Solargen has proposed an even larger project in the Panoche Valley, where solar panels could occupy as much as 10,000 acres and generate up to 1,000 megawatts of power.

If - and it's a big if - the projects are built, the 1,250 megawatts of electricity generated would dwarf the output of any other solar photovoltaic installation currently operating anywhere in the world. The largest such project now is a 266-acre spread of panels near Olmedilla de Alarcon, Spain, which produces 60 megawatts of electricity in peak daylight hours.

Solargen's plans are the latest - and largest - to emerge to harvest Central California's abundant sunlight to generate electricity without creating pollution.

But they're likely to face opposition from groups concerned about endangered species and Panoche Valley residents who don't want millions of solar panels dotting their scenic valley.

Ideal location?

Solargen CEO Michael Peterson said the sites are well-suited to large-scale solar production - even more so than the floor of the San Joaquin Valley, which can be blanketed in winter fog.

That means the solar potential of the two sites is about 90% of what it is in the scorching Mojave Desert, Peterson said.

Other factors are existing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. high-power transmission lines that cross overhead, offering a ready connection to the power grid; and the relative isolation of the two sites. "There's not a huge population and not a huge disturbance," Peterson said.

A pair of solar farms proposed in the Panoche Hills would produce up to 1.25 gigawatts of electricity.


View Solar "farms" proposed in a larger map


Documents submitted to Fresno County planners indicate that the smaller of the two projects would install more than 1.2 million solar panels. The 2-by-4-foot panels would be arranged in rows, tilted to face south, and held aloft about four to five feet off the ground by single-pole steel supports. The rows of panels would be spaced as much as 15 feet apart.

Underneath the panels, native plants and grasses would be grown, kept in check with seasonal grazing by sheep.

The entire property, which is uninhabited by humans and is used as grazing rangeland, covers more than 2,600 acres. About 1,000 acres would be used for the solar project. That includes a 16-acre substation that would tie the electricity into PG&E's transmission lines.

The rest of the land would be preserved as habitat for threatened and endangered species, including the San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard.

The larger project in San Benito County, if built out to its maximum, would install more than 3.5 million solar panels over about 10,000 acres. At that size, it would be able to produce 1,000 megawatts of power. But Peterson said it's more realistic to expect the installation to be smaller.

Even at half the maximum size, with an electrical output of about 500 megawatts, the San Benito County project would still be far larger than any other solar-panel operation today.

A matter of scale

As abundant as sunlight is, solar power remains a mere drop in central California's energy bucket. Most of the existing development of solar power is on the rooftops of businesses and homes. There are other projects being proposed in this part of the state, but the only one to get off the drawing board is a 5-megawatt, 40-acre solar farm now under construction in Mendota.

Electricity isn't the only benefit that Solargen hopes to bring to central California. Peterson said the company also hopes to build a manufacturing plant in Fresno County that could eventually employ up to 150 people making solar photovoltaic panels for its two large solar farms and other projects.

"It'll be less expensive for us to produce the panels as opposed to going out and buying them from an outside company," he said.

And cost is going to be an important consideration for Solargen. Peterson said he expects it will cost close to $4 billion to built both sites.

The company is in early negotiations to sell electricity to PG&E - an agreement that would provide a stable stream of revenue against which Solargen could borrow the money it needs for construction, the company said. It could take five to seven years to build the two farms, Peterson said.

Environmental concern

The price tag isn't going to be the only obstacle Solargen will have to overcome to build either of the two solar farms. Environmentalists are worried about the effects the projects will have on the animals and plants that call the two valleys home.

Brandon Hill, president of the Fresno Audubon Society, said his and other groups will be looking carefully at what Solargen plans to do to ease the effects. "We're going to try to approach this in a constructive manner," Hill said. "Hopefully they will listen to our concerns and respond where feasible."

The Fresno County site, just south of Little Panoche Reservoir, "is an important place to us" for bird watching, Hill said.

In San Benito County, however, outright opposition is brewing among Panoche Valley farmers who grow organic crops and grass-fed livestock sold at premium prices in the Bay Area.

Kim Williams, who with her husband Richard farms pasture-reared laying hens, fear Solargen's project will "cover the entire flat part of the valley with solar panels." That, she said, would ruin the area for the environmentally friendly farming and for the endangered animals and plants that live in the valley.

The solar farm would spoil efforts by the valley's residents - who number less than 200 - to promote the Panoche Valley as an area for ecotourism and agritourism, "a place to let people in the Bay Area see where their food is coming from," Williams said.

Williams said she's philosophically against companies that want to make a huge profit from cheap sunlight. "I'm opposed to utility-scale solar projects that take over prime land," she said. "Solar needs to be promoted on rooftops."

Audubon's Hill said he supports solar technology because it has fewer environmental consequences than fossil fuels.

"With really good mitigation, they can set aside a good chunk of land for wildlife for the rest of our lives," he said. "But with all the farmland that in theory should be retired on the west side of the [San Joaquin] Valley, why not put panels out there?"

Peterson said he's mindful of the environmental concerns.

"In order for us to become energy independent, we can't do it one rooftop at a time," he said.

"We won't be able to make everyone happy. That's just a given," Peterson added. "But we're doing our best to try to make this friendly to the environment."

In addition to setting aside nearby land for kit foxes, kangaroo rats and other species and steering clear of burrows or areas frequented by blunt-nosed leopard lizards, Solargen officials said, environmental engineers have recommended changes to fencing around the sites to allow critters to pass through, raising the panels off the ground to allow sheep to graze, continuing the traditional rangeland use of the property, and minimizing the number of solar panels to avoid disturbing sensitive areas.

"We're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, on environmental issues just to get to the starting line," McAfee said.

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