Merced County Board of Supervisors approve solar project in Los Banos

The Board of Supervisors this week approved plans to build a large solar facility in the Los Banos area, which officials said could spur economic development by creating construction jobs.

The applicant, Michael Lichtenfeld-Vega Solar LLC, proposed constructing a 20-megawatt solar photovoltaic electrical generation facility on 178.3 acres of agricultural land. County supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved the project’s conditional use permit.

The company behind the project is SunEdison, a global solar developer based in Belmont. This is the firm’s first project in Merced County.

The project site is in the Los Banos area, near El Campo and Woo roads. The solar facility would operate for 25 years before being converted back to agricultural land, according to county documents.

Mark Hendrickson, director of community and economic development, said construction of the facility will take a year and could add 30 to 100 construction and installation jobs.

“It is our hope that Merced County residents could be recruited and compete for those positions,” Hendrickson said. “The solar benefits agreement indicates that the project applicant shall act in good faith to recruit qualified workers from the Merced County community.”

Billy Powell, business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 684, said his union will hire all the electricians needed for the project. The union represents 300 state-certified electricians from Stanislaus, Merced, Tuolume and Mariposa counties.

About 35 percent of the union’s membership is from Merced County, Powell said, and those workers will get first priority for the jobs.

“If members have a Merced County ZIP code, they would be dispatched first,” Powell said, estimating about 40 electricians will be needed. “The economy in the Valley has been hit the hardest with this recession and my members are anxious to go out there and work.”

After the 12-month construction period ends, it’s unclear how many jobs will remain at the facility. The solar company has agreed to pay the county $6,000 per year over the next 20 years – a total of $120,000 – for local sheriff and fire staff to answer calls when needed.

The county will also receive at least $240,000 in sales tax from the purchase of the solar panels within 18 months, according to the agreement.

The power generated from the project will go into a power grid, Hendrickson said, and it’s unknown which cities will ultimately get the electricity generated from the project. A representative for the company said the power is paid for by Southern California customers, and they would get some use of the electricity.

“The site we chose had proximity to the transmission system, so we minimized the need for expensive and disruptive line upgrades,” said Russell Baruffi, SunEdison power development manager. “Merced has top-notch solar resources and a supportive business community, plus the county has also been easy to work with and welcoming of economic development.”

Although the project site would need to be removed from the Williamson Act agricultural preserve, county officials said the land is mostly dirt and grass with no crops.

District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion, whose district covers Los Banos, said his family used to farm about 3 miles northeast of the project site and the area’s land is difficult to raise crops on.

“The land was pretty high in salt and it was tough to produce quality crops. It is ag land but not the highest quality that’s in other areas of the county,” said O’Banion, also board chairman. “It’s a cleaner type of energy that’s being produced, and I support those types of activities.”