County to host public hearing on Panoche Valley Solar Project

Planning commissioners to consider feedback from locals to decide whether to officially certify project's environmental review and conditional use permit

The San Benito County Planning Commission will host a public hearing Wednesday on the Panoche Valley Solar Project, including environmental impacts and mitigation measures potentially associated with the project.

At 6 p.m. April 15 at the San Benito County Administration Building, located at 481 Fourth St. in downtown Hollister, county planners will welcome public feedback to officially decide whether to certify the "Panoche Valley Solar Project Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Report," an official assessment that lays out possible effects of a vast field of solar panels planned for construction in Paicines as soon as this summer.

"We will be opening the public hearing tonight and hearing from the public," said Byron Turner, interim planning director of San Benito County. "The project will then be continued to 12 p.m. on Saturday, April 25."

The agenda for the planning commission's meeting says that county officials will consider public feedback in consideration of "certification of the final supplemental environmental impact report and adoption of findings, mitigation measures, a monitoring and reporting program, and a statement of overriding considerations for the revised Panoche Valley Solar Project" as well as "approval of an amendment of Conditional Use Permit 1023-09" to permit the revised project.

On completion pending approval of local, state and federal agencies, the solar-power plant could generate enough electricity for as many as 68,000 homes by year-end next year, when the federal government expects to put an end to business energy investment tax credits.

Though the San Benito County Planning Commission — or the Board of Supervisors on appeal — must approve the project's revised application for a conditional use permit, according to the county's notice of availability of the final SEIR, only supervisors have the authority to certify the final SEIR in compliance with the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.

The new plan for the solar-power plant, according to its final SEIR, includes fewer megawatts and a shorter timeline: Construction of the 247-megawatt facility, expected in 2010 to include 399 megawatts and require five years for completion, could start as soon as this summer and subsequently finish in 18 months. In the event the project breaks ground in Paicines by June, when Panoche Valley Solar LLC expects to team with Amec Foster Wheeler PLC and create as many as 500 direct jobs in construction, the solar facility could begin service by year-end next year, when the federal government plans to conclude an investment tax credit of 30 percent for corporate technologies in renewable energy.

Though Panoche Valley Solar Vice President Eric Cherniss was unavailable Tuesday for a comment on the final SEIR, the solar executive told BenitoLink last month that the project aims to create multiple opportunities for local communities.

“Employment by the project, as well as local businesses providing goods and services to it, creates a ripple effect that helps stimulate the local economy," said Cherniss. "These direct opportunities are on top of the financial benefits received by the county through the forms of sales, use taxes and public benefit compensation, which will help the county better serve its residents.”

Stakeholders have said that potential benefits of the project include sales taxes of $30 million, expected to yield $8 million for local programs and services such as education, public safety and transportation. Energy executives, according to a previous report by BenitoLink, have said that they expect that on completion, the project will produce as many as 247 megawatts for Southern California Edison Co., whose electrical infrastructure reportedly covers a population of nearly 14 million people in the bottom half of the state.

The project's opponents continue their fight against the plant, despite a legal judgment against them. Environmentalists in recent weeks have pointed to federal regulators, including the United States Army Corps of Engineers and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, concerning safety and air-quality issues associated with the planned development of the solar facility.

A spokesperson of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife did not immediately respond to queries by BenitoLink. Sarah Friedman, a senior campaign representative with the Sierra Club, told BenitoLink Tuesday that the environmental organization expects to imminently review the project's final SEIR.

In a statement Tuesday to BenitoLink, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that at the moment, the agency remains the federal lead for Panoche Valley Solar Project, though left open the possibility of a shift in oversight.

"In terms of permit processing and whether any change of the federal lead will occur for this project, everything essentially is pending," said Katerina Galacatos, the south branch chief of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' regulatory division. "Right now, there hasn't been a decision to change the federal lead."

The spokesperson provided no comment on whether such consideration could affect the current timeline of 18 months for completion of the proposed solar-power generator. The U.S. Department of Energy plans to end eligibility for the federal government's business energy investment tax credit Dec. 31, 2016.

Jason McCormick

Jason McCormick is a journalist taking a break from news and now running mcormc corporation, a data driven digital marketing agency in Redding, Calif.