Business / Economy

Still no sign of work at Panoche Valley Solar Farm

After six years, the Panoche Valley Solar Farm still appears to be hanging in limbo
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Environmentalists aren’t letting any grass grow under their feet after San Benito County Judge Harry Tobias shot down the joint lawsuit Sept. 2015 against the Panoche Valley Solar Project, a 4,885-acre, 247-megawatt solar farm slated to be built approximately three-quarters of a mile north of the intersection of Panoche Road and Little Panoche Road in south San Benito County.

Rather than opt for an appeal, the three organizations—Sierra Club, Defenders of Wilderness and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society—filed a state lawsuit five weeks ago at the county superior court in Los Angeles, as well as a federal suit last week in federal district court in San Jose.

The original permit application to construct the solar farm was received in April 2010, and an updated application was received in August 2010, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sept. 2015 Environmental Impact Study (EIS). The application was submitted by Solargen Energy, Inc., and was then later assumed by Panoche Valley Solar LLC (PV2).  In April 2012, PV2 entered into a joint venture with Charlotte, NC-based Duke Renewable Energies, the largest utility in the U.S. with a $100 billion balance sheet. The cost was estimated at approximately $1 billion. But in Aug. 2014, Duke pulled back from the deal, according to the San Jose Mercury News, to become a minor investor, rather than half-owner.

The impact study stated that project site: “Is bordered by rangeland to the north and south, by the Gabilan Range to the west, and by the Panoche Hills to the east. Panoche Creek and Las Aguilas Creek flow through the project site. In addition, there are several stock ponds and stream segments in the northern portion of the project site.

“During the past 40 years, the project site has been used for grazing. Previously, crop production occurred over much of the project site. The proposed project would be constructed in fi­ve phases and would include a substation, on-site access roads, and buried electrical collection conduit. The construction of three of the road crossings would result in 427 cubic yards of fi­ll into Panoche Creek and Las Aguilas Creek, jurisdictional waters of the U.S. Electricity generated from the project would be transmitted on-site to the state’s electrical grid through two existing Paci­fic Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) transmission lines.”

According to a March 22, 2016 press release from the environmental groups, the lawsuits, “…concern a massive development project in an irreplaceable area of significant ecological importance critical to the survival and recovery of highly endangered species, including the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the giant kangaroo rat.”

The three organizations want the court to set aside the permit, claiming that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) violated both California’s Endangered Species Act (CESA) and the state’s fully protected species laws when it issued the permit.

“The Panoche Valley is a place of unique ecological value, critical to protecting California’s natural legacy,” said Sarah Friedman, campaign representative with the Sierra Club. “If this land is developed, it will be a blow to the region’s ecology and several species already teetering on the edge of extinction. While we need more solar in California, we don’t need to choose between energy and wildlife.”

Kim Delsino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said in the release that the project should be moved to degraded lands, such as the former agricultural lands in the Westlands Water District.

 “With this lawsuit, Defenders is working to protect some of California's most endangered wildlife and ensure that the Panoche Solar Project never drives a single solar panel into this unique valley floor,” Delsino said. “We don't have to sacrifice California's natural heritage to meet our clean energy goals.”

Delsino told BenitoLink in a phone interview that the previous lawsuit shot down by Judge Tobias was much broader in scope, using the California Mammal Quality Act (CMQA). The current suits are narrower focused on whether CDFW should have issued a permit under the State Endangered Species Act (SESA) to kill or take state-listed endangered species.

“Our position is that available information showed that the project was going to have an impact on the listed species at a level that it would potentially jeopardize future survival and recovery of those species,” she said. “Also, because there’s a provision in state law that it does not allow you to kill fully protected species, and the flat-nosed lizard is fully protected, and there’s a lot of information in the record that shows the project—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW) biological opinion—will definitely kill the lizards. So our position is, if you’re violating state law then you should not be issuing any additional permits for this project.”

Delsino said the group filed the federal case last week to challenges the issuance of biological opinion for violating the FDSA and against the Army Corps of Engineers for its Clean Water Act permit in which the environmentalists believe it violated the act.

“We only bring litigation when we feel pretty good about the facts and that we’re going to be successful,” she said, and then explained how they were able to afford simultaneous lawsuits: “The litigators for the federal lawsuit attorneys are salaried employees that work for the Defenders of Wildlife. The attorneys on the state lawsuit is a shoestring operation funded through contributions.”

The environmental groups claim that the solar project is not necessary to meet California’s climate or renewable energy goals.  They state in the press release that the Nature Conservancy has identified hundreds of thousands of acres of land with low agricultural and biodiversity value in the Western San Joaquin Valley, and that there is broad support from farmers and environmentalists for the Westlands Water District site.

The release concluded by stating that, “…according to the California Energy Commission, there are 55 large-scale solar projects already under development in nearby Monterey, Fresno, Merced and Kings counties that are either approved or seeking permits. These projects, if completed, would produce a total of 1929 megawatts of clean energy and between 11,000 and 15,000 job-years according to estimates by California’s Clean Energy Future.

Delsino said her organization is not against solar farms, in general; it is just against the location in Panoche Valley. 

“We put out a report on the San Joaquin Valley where we laid out all the various options for solar projects and we contracted with UC Santa Barbara to do an assessment of the San Joaquin Valley to identify areas that would be good for utility-scale solar,” she told BenitoLink. “We also participated with the governor’s office in an exercise with a report that is going to be issued May 9 that will identify about 400,000 acres that environmentalists, ranchers and farmers all agreed that there would be little conflict over putting projects there.”

Delsino said her organization also spent seven years identifying 20 million acres where solar projects could be built on desert lands.

Before the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers began work on the EIP, members of the public were invited to attend two public scoping meetings in 2012 at Panoche School and at the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister to obtain information on the solar project.

During the meeting at the Panoche School, local rancher Don Douglas told those present that as one who trains horses in and rides throughout the valley, “This is an insane project. This is good soil. You don't want to cover it up with solar panels.”

Rani Douglas asked the officials what the timeframe for the project was. Cameron Johnson, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, didn’t specify a particular timeframe, but that he said the agency could not issue a permit until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a biological opinion.

“There needs to be a companion permit from the Regional Water Quality Control Board and a 401 certification also has to come in before we're legally allowed to issue a permit,” Johnson said. “So the timeframe question is a big giant question mark.”

He went on to say that sometimes if U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife came back with a biological opinion, then the Corps of Engineers can turn around its permit decision relatively quickly. Or it could take years, he added. He said he didn’t really know because his agency is dependent on other agencies' actions.

Claudia Kale said she was concerned about the project because of the amount of traffic that it would bring to the area.

“This road (Panoche) is almost impassable now, very dangerous and treacherous and not maintained,” she said. “They're also not only not maintained, there are no proper road signs. You don't know which way you're going when you're coming to a dirt road at the end here, and my husband and I are getting sick and tired of carloads of people coming to our place saying how do I get here and how do I get there, and the traffic has increased. I don't know why, but it's a little harrowing and I don't appreciate it. I came here for the privacy and for scenery and to do gardening and to live peacefully and have a place for my grandchildren to come and spend, to learn about the old west and these kinds of ways of living, and I don't want a project to come here and disrupt my life and my grandchildren's lives.”

Kale said she was also concerned about her well.

“The underground aquifer here is very sensitive, and I think that anyone dittling with any water anywhere in this valley has to be very closely monitored and regulated,” she said. “It's our life and without it we won't live. We won't be here. We won't farm. We won't have any crops. We won't have any animals and our wells are just so deep. So anyone pulling water out of this aquifer is going to be a big deal.”

Kate Woods, who lives near the abandoned New Idria mercury mine, said she lives near a legacy of filth from the contamination of San Carlos Creek left by the New Idria Mining Company.

 “It's never been cleaned up,” she said. “So I'm a little fearful of this myself. The biggest thing I'm thinking of right now is I used to be an environmental and political reporter around these parts for about a decade or so, and I'm just wondering why they picked Panoche Valley, which is such a stellar example of sustainable farming and ranching at this point.

“Over the last 30 years, I've seen it become like the best example of that in the nation. Why can't they put this thing down in the trash fields of Fresno? I mean I just don't understand why they're going to take such perfect, pristine land and make everybody suffer for this. But you know, I may be a day late and dollar short with my comments, and I guess this thing is getting on the way.”

Collette Cassidy, who owns a small dairy farm in the area, said she didn’t see the point of the Army Corps of Engineers being involved.

“That may be my naivety, or I just don't see from jurisdiction that there's any viable waterways here in the high desert here,” she said. “There are creeks when it rains, which it doesn't do very often, only occasionally. They certainly don't become waterways, so it kind of seems like a ruse, but maybe it's easier to get the project through with Army Corps involved. I don't know, it seems like fish and wildlife is more relevant as far as endangered species and everything.

“The real endangered species are the farmers and ranchers in this valley that some of whom are carrying on traditions that have been around for a long time, and I think that this project will have an impact on our business, and I’m particularly concerned about being downwind of all the construction.

“This is a pretty amazing valley. It's been this way forever. Basically it's the same as it was a hundred years ago, and there are not very many places probably in the country where you can say that and that's a valuable thing.”

Cassidy commented: “I don’t know a lot about Duke Energy, but there was Duke Energy Renewables, so I'm assuming that most of what made them a really big company is coal, and that's where we get most of our energy from. I think that most of these solar projects wouldn't even be happening if it wasn't for the politics and the government money; and that's the only thing that really makes it viable is the government money.”

On Sept. 17, 2015, New York-based ConEdison Development (CED) announced in a press release that it had acquired 50 percent interest in the project. In the release, CED stated that it will “…provide construction management, operations and maintenance, and asset management for the project. RET Capital, one of the country’s leading finance and asset management platforms for the renewable energy industry, had been an early investor and sole owner of the project, and the companies now hold equal shares of ownership.”

On Dec. 12, 2015, BenitoLink ran a story that stated construction was expected to begin before the end of the year. On April 23, 2016  BenitoLink reporter, John Chadwell, drove up to Panoche Valley to take a look and found no sign of construction, other than a dirt road and a few survey markers.

On April 27, ConEDISON and Panoche Vally Solar LLC declined to comment to BenitoLink about the current construction status of the Panoche Valley Solar Project. BenitoLink also contacted San Benito County Supervisor Jerry Muenzer, whosaid that he was not aware that ConEDISON was now managing the construction of the site, nor did he know that there were two new lawsuits.

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a BenitoLink reporter and an author. He has many years' experience as a freelance photojournalist, copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer who has worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and underwent graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John has worked as a script doctor and his own script, God's Club, was released as a motion picture in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]