Eight years after Solargen Energy Inc. first announced it would build a 399-megawatt solar project on nearly 3,200 acres in Panoche Valley, San Benito County is finally receiving payments from the current owners, ConEdison, according to a March 20 report to the board of supervisors.
Barbara Thompson, county counsel, told supervisors that the county would be paid a minimum of $4.25 million in sales taxes. The original solar farm was expected to bring in $5.4 million in sales tax from the purchase of the panels. At one time 1,000 workers were expected to find employment with the project, today the number is closer to 200.
“We’ve received approximately 31.5 percent of the county’s portion of the sales tax,” she said. "Eric Cherniss [director for ConEdison Development] said an additional sales tax [payment] has been paid and it’s still in the process of being received by the county.”
She said additional monies are slated to begin arriving by Sept. 30 and continue through the year.
“They did pay the $2.5 million within five business days after the development agreement was recorded,” she said. “They’re reimbursing the county for reasonable expenses related to quarterly reports to verify the sales tax has been paid. They’re being billed as the HdL [Companies] bills are received.”
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz asked Thompson if the county is sending ConEdison bills on a regular basis. She told him the auditor’s office will be sending them the bills for reimbursement as the county receives billings from HdL’s services in monitoring the project, referring to their monitoring of sales tax.
“I know there were some issues in terms of trust,” De La Cruz said, referring to past bad blood the county has had with the company. “I just want to make sure they’re paying within 30 days all the back payments.”
Not original plan
Since its original design, the project has been drastically reduced in physical size and power output. Because of repeated lawsuits waged by environmental organizations, the original 399-megawatt design in 2010, was reduced by 40 percent to 247-megawatts, at a cost of $650 million, and then reduced yet again to approximately 100-megawatts.
According to the Land Use Law Blog, in its original configuration, the project would have consisted of nearly 4 million solar panels, making it one of the largest solar farms in the world that would have provided electricity to 100,000 homes. It would have given the county $5.4 million in sales tax from the purchase of the panels.
Even at less than a third the original design, what has been built so far is massive. In late March, 250,000 solar panels were already in place covering part the valley from the west side of Little Panoche Road to the Diablo Mountain Range. Another 265,000 Chinese-manufactured panels were still in crates on the other side of the road.
Because of pressure from the environmentalists, nearly 40 square miles, or 25,600 acres, were set aside as a permanent conservation habitat to protect endangered or threatened animals, including the San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard. And rather than nearly a 1,000 jobs promised, there are fewer than 200 workers in March, most from the Central Valley or out of state. Only a few, according to one employee at the site, are from San Benito County.
Richman suggests better agreements
After Thompson’s presentation, during public comments, Marty Richman, a long-time out-spoken critic of the original development agreement for the solar project, said while he wanted to give the board credit for finally squeezing some money out of PV2, he also had some criticism for them. He said no one with the county kept track of what was happening at the construction site.
Supervisors were surprised to learn that a privately negotiated agreement had been reached between ConEdison, the environmentalists and Fish & Wildlife to reduce the size of the project. Supervisors then threatened to file a cease-and-desist order last August, and Supervisor Jerry Muenzer accused Cherniss of “blowing us off.”
“Are we going to do this again, if we don’t learn our lesson?” Richman questioned. “Almost any project can be canceled for any number of reasons. It would be a lot easier on all of us and a lot cheaper in the long run, if you would consider putting in all the requirements of what’s going to happen if the project is canceled in the front of these contracts rather than trying to negotiate in the back of the contract.”
He said the county has to constantly monitor future projects to avoid what took place with the solar project.
“If we don’t monitor the agreement, every time we have a hiccup we’re trying to figure where we are, why this didn’t happen, how come the money didn’t go where it was supposed to, how come they didn’t hire the people they said they were going to,” he said. “People come to San Benito County because we have limited resources and they make a lot of promises with the understanding you’re not going to make sure those get fulfilled.”
Ray Espinosa, county admininistration officer, agreed with Richman and said, “We’ve learned a little bit from this issue, so in the future we need to address the items in advance,” he said. “One of the reasons why, we actually called them on the progress and that’s when this whole thing came to light about them reducing the size of the project.”
Giant Kangaroo Rat
In an Apr. 13 email, John Guertin, director of the Resource Management Agency (RMA), said the most recent environmental monitoring report states that 686 giant kangaroo rats (GKR) were relocated. According to the latest report to the county, a contractor was tasked with trapping and relocating the GKRs to sites at least 2,000 feet away from current construction.
Burrows were marked and then surrounded with fencing and live trapping was carried out for five consecutive nights. Collected data including location, time and date, temperature, sex, age, weight, reproductive and general condition. Tissue samples for genetic analysis was also collected. Any pregnant, lactating or nursing female GKRs or dependent juveniles were released immediately to their original burrows and a buffer was established around them.
All other GKR adults and non-dependent juveniles were then fitted with a passive integrated transponder tag and immediately released in receiver sites. These receiver sites were previously set up with enclosures and artificial burrows. All non-GKR species found in traps were documented and released in suitable habitat outside of the project boundary, but away from GKR sites.
Per the approved translocation plan, when relocated GKRs acclimated to their new burrows at the receiver sites, release pens would be removed. Biologists approved and oversaw all removals only after determining the GKR were acclimated to their new habitat.
The report also noted that six project-related GKR deaths happened since the start of construction. At least two took place from capture myopathy after trapping. Other GKR deaths have been observed during this time. These have been from natural causes, predation, non-project vehicle strikes, and miscellaneous non-project causes, such as drowning in a cattle-water trough near the project site, but away from construction.
Little Panoche Road
Guertin said RMA is involved in building inspections, tracking environmental reports, and reconstruction of Little Panoche Road. Guertin told BenitoLink the work will start in May. He said PV2 will dig up five and a half miles of Little Panoche Road from Panoche Road to the county line and replace it with a two-inch overlay.
“It’ll be a good road by the time it’s done,” Guertin said. “The estimate [cost] was in the neighborhood of around $3 million. It was part of the initial agreement when the solar farm was first approved."
He said Fresno County was anxious to get their section done at the beginning of construction. San Benito County elected to do the road work after construction of the solar farm.
"RMA agreed to defer the work on our side of the county line until after all the construction trucks stopped going through," he said. "Folks who were in there [RMA] before me didn’t see a reason to reconstruct a road and then put a 1,000 truck trips on top of it and have to go back in and fix it afterwards.”
Thompson said road construction should be completed by May 31. Guertin said the entire project should be completed early 2019.
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