PV2 Energy LLC expects that an ample supply of sunshine will spark significant opportunities for locals seeking employment in San Benito County. In a project whose flagship plan proposes a utility-scale solar farm, however, critics say the potential impacts of Panoche Valley Solar LLC also present a fair amount of possible risk, as well as controversy.
During an event in Hollister Feb. 5, PV2 Energy President John Pimentel shed light on the California solar developer's $650 million project — a 247-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm slated to break ground in Paicines as soon as this summer.
"There's been a lot of discussion about the project for six years now," said Pimentel at the event, which followed the establishment of the Panoche Valley Solar's office in Hollister. "We are finally reaching a point where we are about to start construction."
Panoche Valley Solar expects that the project will create hundreds of jobs, including 500 in construction. In a statement last week, Panoche Valley Solar said that two local job fairs are planned for the spring.
The project has faced a number of challenges, including substantial redesign and legal hurdles.
In 2011, when PV2 Energy purchased Panoche Valley Solar's assets from Solargen Energy Inc., environmental advocates that included the Loma Preita chapter of the Sierra Club, along with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and Save Panoche Valley, filed suit against San Benito County over its approval of an environmental impact report for a previous plan, which proposed a 399-megawatt project. The environmental groups in the lawsuit alleged that "numerous inadequacies" in an analysis of the EIR approved by the county's Board of Supervisors "were caused by the rush to approve this project in order to qualify it for federal stimulus dollars."
A county judge ruled against the environmental groups. They appealed the decision. A state court of appeal affirmed the judgment in favor of the EIR approved by county supervisors.
"After successfully defending that plan through two nuisance lawsuits and winning an award for the best EIR of the year, we spent three more years and an additional $5 million working with the government agencies and environmental groups to repeat biological studies and incorporate significant project modifications to avoid, minimize and mitigate the project footprint," said Pimentel, an energy veteran who holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a Bachelor's degree from the University of California, Berkeley.
The potential effects of the project on wild animals in and near its 2,500-acre site remain concerns among many locals of the greater community, including stakeholders.
Sierra Club Senior Campaign Representative Sarah Friedman said in a statement to BenitoLink Feb. 10 that Panoche Valley provides key habitats for endangered and threatened animals.
"This project concerns so many state and federally protected species," said Friedman. "The San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat and blunt-nosed leopard lizard have figured out how to coexist with each other and thrive in pivotal habitats in Panoche Valley, designated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a core recovery area for upland species. The project is expected to take away a big chunk of those habitats that in our minds is irreplaceable."
Pimentel, the PV2 Energy president, shared detail by email Feb. 10 on efforts to protect the habitats of endangered wildlife in Panoche Valley:
"In 2010, we received the county’s approval for 399 megawatts," said Pimentel in a statement to BenitoLink. "We now have 240 megawatts, which is a 40 percent reduction in output, and our plan contributes almost 40 square miles of privately owned land into permanent conservation for future use in species recovery and biological study efforts. We've revised the plan to the economic detriment of the project, but to the benefit of the environment. We are very proud to be delivering a project that will be a net benefit to the species and the regional recovery efforts for the San Joaquin Kit Fox while helping the state meet its renewable energy goals."