Solar Farms in the California Central Coast Region

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An environmental summary created by the ENVS 560/L Watershed Systems class at CSUMB.

Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County. Image from Gigaom: [5]

This page discusses solar farms in the central coast region.

Summary

Solar farms, also referred to as photovoltaic power stations or solar parks, are large-scale arrangements of solar panels designed to supply energy into the power grid. These energy sources convert solar energy into electric energy that can be transferred to consumers. [1]

Currently, there are two large-scale solar farms in California's Central Coast Region. Two additional solar farms are in the process of being built: one in Monterey County and a second in San Benito County.

While many different forms of technology are used in solar farms, those employed in the Central Coast region are listed and explained in the following page: Photovoltaic technology in California's Central Coast Region.

Locations in the Central Coast Region

Existing

Name Location Date Completed Acres Energy capacity Developer Technology Equivalent # of homes powered
California Valley Solar Ranch[2] San Luis Obispo County (Carrizo Plain) October 2013 1500 250 MWac SunPower PV single axis tracking arrays[3] 100,000
Topaz Solar Farm[4][5] San Luis Obispo County (Carrizo Plain) November 2014 4700 550 MWac First Solar PV arrays, fixed at 25 degree angle[5] 160,000

Proposed

California Flats Solar Project

Artist rendition of proposed California Flats Solar Project. Image from 9to5mac: [6]

First Solar has proposed building a 2,900-acre, 280 megawatt, alternating current solar park in Monterey County's Cholame Valley. The proposed project is estimated to bring in 300 construction and 11 ongoing operational jobs to the County. Once completed, the park would generate a power output estimated to cover the energy needs of 100,000 homes per year and would displace 109,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year.[6]

Apple has partnered with First Solar and has committed approximately $850 million to help build the California Flats Solar Project. The tech company stated that environmental concerns over climate change drove them to invest in green energy alternatives. Apple plans to power both Cupertino campuses and all 52 Apple stores in the state with energy from the California Flats Solar Farm.[7]

Panoche Valley Solar

Proposed location of Panoche Valley Solar Farm. Image from San Benito county: [7]

Duke Energy, a large-scale developer, owner and operator of renewable energy projects across the state plans to build the Panoche Valley Solar Farm in San Benito County's Panoche Valley. Once fully operational, the farm would generate an estimated 247 megawatts of energy.[8] The energy output would be enough to power an average of 90,000 homes a year and would displace 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year.[9]

Duke Energy's proposed plan also includes setting aside land for mitigation purposes. In total, Duke Energy plans on using 26,000 acres for its farm. Fewer than 2,500 acres will consist of solar farms and the remainder will be used for mitigation. The plan proposes a 9:1 conservation-to-land use ratio.[9]

Environmental Impacts

Summary

Various environmental impacts are associated with solar farms. Several of these impacts are beneficial to the environment, like the generation of clean and renewable energy. However, some impacts are detrimental to the environment. These impacts include potential disturbances to organisms and aesthetic impacts. As such, the construction of a solar farm is preceded by a lengthy environmental impact assessment process that includes biological surveys and mitigation plan development.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Solar energy is both a renewable and clean source of energy. Each day, the amount of sunlight that the United States receives is 2,500 times more than the daily energy usage.[1] These photons could be converted into electrical energy through a process far cleaner than traditional, carbon-emitting energy production processes. Solar energy releases an estimated 0.07–0.2 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (CO2E/kWh). This is relatively small when compared to natural gas (0.2–2.0 CO2E/kWh) and coal (1.4–3.6 CO2E/kWh) power plants. Increasing the amount of cleaner renewable sources of energy would reduce global carbon emissions, [10] and result in increased health benefits.[11]

California Department of Fish and Wildlife and Solar Farms

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) created the Renewable Energy Program to reconcile the state's need for renewable energy and maintenance of natural resources. The Renewable Energy Program enforces compliance and issues permits related to the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). [12]

Environmental review of California Valley Solar Ranch in the Carrizo Plain

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Loan Guarantee Program Office selected SunPower's application for due diligence review on August 27, 2010. This process made all components of the then-proposed California Valley Solar Ranch subject to NEPA Compliance. Additionally, the DOE determined that the construction and operation of the proposed California Valley Ranch could affect species listed under the Federal Endangered Species Act. The DOE requested an environmental consultation of the proposed site, called a biological assessment, which was conducted by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) under Section 7(a)(2) of the CESA. The assessment resulted in a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).

The environmental consultation assessed the presence of federally threatened and endangered species, revealing the presence of several species of concern.[13]

SunPower worked with environmental consulting firm H.T Harvey & Associates to enact proper monitoring and mitigation for these species and their associated habitat.[14]

Animal species

Common name Scientific name Status in California
San Joaquin kit fox Vulpes macrotis mutica Federally endangered; state threatened
giant kangaroo rat Dipodomys ingens Federally and state endangered
giant kangaroo rat Dipodomys ingens Federally and state endangered
longhorn fairy shrimp Branchinecta longiantenna Federally endangered
vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp Branchinecta lynchi Federally endangered
Kern Primrose sphinx moth Euproserpinus euterpe Federally threatened
blunt‐nosed leopard lizard Gambelia sila Federally and state endangered
California condor Gymnogyps californianus Federally and state endangered
Mountain plover Charadrius montanus California species of concern; federally threatened candidate

Plant species

Common name Scientific name Status in California
California jewel-flower Caulanthus californicus Federally and state endangered
San Joaquin woollythreads Monolopia congdonii Federally endangered, CNPS List 1B

Environmental review of Topaz Solar Farm in the Carrizo Plain

San Joaquin kit foxes near a solar farm in the Carrizo Plain. Image from USFWS: [8]

Timeline

  • March 18th, 2011: Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Topaz Solar Farm was filed by the DOE with the Environmental Protection Agency[15]
  • March 25th, 2011: Start of public review period for draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR)[15]
  • April 13th, 2011: Public hearing held at the Carrisa Plains Hertiage Association Community Center in Santa Margarita, California
  • May 9th, 2011: End of public review period for draft EIR[15]
  • August 2011: Final EIS released[15]
  • September 2nd, 2011: CDFW Issues a State Incidental Take Permit[16]

Incidental Take Permit 2081-2011-04-04

On September 2, 2011, the CDFW issued a State Incidental Take Permit (2081-2011-04-04) in response to the presence of San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica) in the proposed Topaz Solar Farm location. The Incidental Take Permit designated 12,147 acres of mitigation lands to serve as habitat for several threatened and endangered species.

The report notes that more species than those listed could be impacted by solar farms in the Carrizo Plain, as the region has the highest concentration of threatened and endangered species in the state.[17] Both SunPower and First Solar claim to be committed to protecting biological diversity and have created conservation plans to protect habitat for these species.[18]

Animal species

Common name Scientific name
San Joaquin kit fox Vulpes macrotis mutica
blunt-nosed leopard lizard Gambelia sila
giant kangaroo rat Dipodomys ingens
listed fairy shrimp Branchinecta lynchi
Nelson’s antelope squirrel Ammospermophilus nelsoni
mountain plover Charadrius montanus
burrowing owl Athene cunicularia
pronghorn Antilocapra americana
tule elk Cervus canadensis nannodes

The USFWS notes that additional species of concern include:[18]

Common name Scientific name
longhorn fairy shrimp Branchinecta longiantenna
golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos
long-billed curlfew Numenius americanus
loggerhead shrike Lanius ludovicianus

Plant species

The CDFW Vegetation Community Mapping Program (VegCAMP) planned to conduct botanical surveys in 2013 and 2014 to assess the presence of rare plants on the solar farm site. However, VegCAMP was unable to adequately assess vegetation both years due to low levels of plant germination, likely caused by low levels of precipitation. A more comprehensive survey is slated for a year with higher levels of rainfall.[16] [19]

Environmental review of California Flats Solar Project in the Cholame Valley

Timeline

  • April 9th, 2013: Monterey County begins environmental impact assessment<ref=> Monterey County Resource Management Agency. 2013. California Flats Solar Project Notice of Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Report. Monterey County Resource Management Agency</ref>
  • August 2013: Draft EIR released[20]
  • April 9th, 2013: Monterey County begins environmental impact assessment[20]
  • August 6th, 2014–September 22nd, 2014: Public review period for draft EIR[21]
  • December 23rd, 2014: Final EIR released[22]


The final EIR listed several plant and animal species of concern that can be found or have the potential to be found in the proposed solar farm site.

Animal species

Common name Scientific name
coast horned lizard Phrynosoma blainvillii
golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos
tricolored blackbird Agelaius tricolor
short-eared owl Asio flammeus
burrowing owl Athene cunicularia
bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus
loggerhead shrike Lanius ludovicianus
grasshopper sparrow Ammodramus savannarum
long-eared owl Asio otus
mountain plover Charadrius montanus
northern harrier Circus cyaneus
whitetailed kite Elanus leucurus
Oregon vesper sparrow Pooecetes gramineus affinis
San Joaquin kit fox Vulpes macrotis mutica
American badger Taxidea taxus
Pallid bat Antrozous pallidus
western mastiff bat Eumops perotis californicus
San Joaquin pocket mouse Perognathus inornatus inornatus

Plant species

Common name Scientific name
Small-flowered morning glory Convolvulus simulans
Rattan’s cryptantha Cryptantha rattanii
diamond-petaled California poppy Eschscholzia rhombipetala
Diablo Range hare-leaf Lagophylla diaboloensis

Environmental review of Panoche Valley Solar Farm in the Carrizo Plain

Timeline

  • March 1st, 2010: San Benito County releases a Notice of Preparation regarding the Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project[23]
  • June 2010: San Benito County publishes a Public Scoping Report for the Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project[24]
  • June 28th, 2010: Draft EIR released for public review[25]
  • August 31st, 2010: End of Draft EIR public review
  • September 30th, 2010: Final EIR released[26]

The final EIR assessed the effects of the proposed solar farm on three currently endangered species.[27] The results of the report are summarized in the tables below.

Animal species

Common Name Scientific Name Potential to occur Status in California Impact of Panoche Valley Solar Farm Proposed mitigation
San Joaquin kit fox Vulpes macrotis mutica Present Federally endangered; state threatened Threatens high priority habitat important for long term survival and recovery of species. Prioritize habitat in the Ciervo-Panoche and Kern County as that would be the least expensive way to protect large tracts of habitat
giant kangaroo rat Dipodomys ingens Present Federally and state endangered Threatens high priority habitat important for long term survival and recovery of species. Secure the Ciervo‐Panoche Region from incompatible land uses
blunt‐nosed leopard lizard Gambelia sila Present Federally and state endangered; state fully protected Threatens high priority habitat important for long term survival and recovery of species. 6,000 contiguous acres of occupied habitat within the Ciervo‐Panoche area needs to be secured from incompatible uses.

Additionally, several other invertebrate and vertebrate species occur or have the potential to occur in the proposed solar farm site. These organisms include:

Common name Scientific name Potential to occur Status in California
longhorn Fairy Shrimp Branchinecta longiantenna Not likely to occur Federally endangered
vernal Pool Fairy Shrimp Branchinecta lynchi Present Federally threatened
Southwestern pond turtle Actinemys marmorata pallida Not likely to occur California species of special concern
silvery legless lizard Anniella pulchra pulchra Not likely to occur California species of special concern
San Joaquin coachwhip Masticophis flagellum ruddocki Present California species of special concern
coast horned lizard Phrynosoma blainvillii Present California species of special concern
California red-legged frog Rana draytonii Not likely to occur Federally and state protected
two-striped garter snake Thamnophis hammondii Not likely to occur California species of concern
California tiger salamander Ambystoma californiense Present Federally threatened; state threatened candidate
western spadefoot toad Spea hammondii Moderate California species of concern
tricolored blackbird Agelaius tricolor Present California species of concern
grasshopper sparrow Ammodramus savannarum Moderate California species of concern
golden eagle Aquila chrysaetos Present State fully protected
short-eared owl Asio flammeus High California species of concern
long-eared owl Asio otus Low California species of concern
Burrowing owl Athene cunicularia Present California species of concern
Swainson’s hawk Buteo swainsonii Low State threatened
mountain plover Charadrius montanus Present California species of concern; federally threatened candidate
northern harrier Circus cyaneus Present California species of concern; federally threatened candidate
white-tailed kite Elanus leucurus Low State fully protected
California condor Gymnogyps californianus Moderate Federally and state endangered
bald eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus Not likely to occur Federally protected; state endangered
Loggerhead shrike Lanius ludovicianus Present California species of concern
Oregon vesper sparrow Pooecetes gramineus affinis High California species of concern
yellow-headed Blackbird Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus Not likely to occur California species of concern
San Joaquin antelope squirrel Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus Not likely to occur California species of concern
pallid bat Antrozous pallidus High California species of concern
Townsend’s big-eared bat Corynorhinus townsendii Low California species of concern
short-nosed kangaroo rat Dipodomys nitratoides brevinasus High California species of concern
western mastiff bat Eumops perotis Moderate California species of concern
Tulare grasshopper mouse Onychomys torridus tularensis Low California species of concern
American badger Taxidea taxus Present California species of concern

Plant species

The proposed site also has the potential to support several special status plant species.[27] These species include:

Common name Scientific name Potential to occur Status in California
forked fiddleneck Amsinckia vernicosa var. furcata High Fairly endangered
California androsace Androsace elongata ssp. Acuta Moderate Fairly endangered
Salinas milkvetch Astragalus macrodon Low Not very endangered
Heartscale Atriplex cordulata Low Fairly endangered
Crownscale Atriplex coronate var. coronate Low Fairly endangered
Brittlescale Atriplex depressa Low Fairly endangered
San Joaquin spearscale Atriplex joaquiniana Low Fairly endangered
Lesser saltscale Atriplex minuscule Low Seriously endangered
Subtle orache Atriplex subtilis Low Fairly endangered
lost hills crownscale Atriplex vallicola Low Fairly endangered
Big tarplant Blepharizonia plumose Low Seriously endangered
round-leaved filaree California macrophylla Low Seriously endangered
California jewel-flower Caulanthus californicus Moderate Seriously endangered
Lemmon’s jewel-flower Caulanthus coulteri var. lemmonii. Moderate Fairly endangered
Potbellied spineflower Chorizanthe ventricosa Moderate Not very endangered
Hispid bird’s-beak Cordylanthus mollis ssp. Hispidus Low Seriously endangered
Hall’s tarplant Deinandra halliana Moderate Seriously endangered
gypsum-loving larkspur Delphinium gypsophilum ssp. Gypsophilum Present Fairly endangered
recurved larkspur Delphinium recurvatum Present Fairly endangered
cottony buckwheat Eriogonum gossypinum Low Fairly endangered
Idria buckwheat Eriogonum vestitum Moderate Not very endangered
pale-yellow layia Layia heterotricha Moderate Seriously endangered
Munz’s tidytips Layia munzii Moderate Fairly endangered
Jared’s pepper-grass Lepidium jaredii ssp. Jaredii Low Fairly endangered
Serpentine Linanthus Leptosiphon ambiguous Present Fairly endangered
showy golden madia Madia radiate Moderate Seriously endangered
San Joaquin woollythreads Monolopia congdonii Low Fairly endangered

Scenic impacts

Solar farms can affect scenic views and alter landscape aesthetics. The panels and arrays have the potential to degrade the visual character or quality of the landscape[28]. A way to reduce aesthetic impacts is to build low-lying solar arrays, as is the case with the proposed solar farm in Monterey County.[29]

Impacts on land usage and agriculture

Artist rendition of a hypothetical agave plant and solar panel system. Image from greentechlead: [9]

Central Coast solar farms could impact pre-existing land usage. A 2015 study by the Carnegie Institution of Science found that 15 percent of existing and proposed solar farms in California exist on land already impacted by human development. Twenty-eight percent of these farms impacted croplands and pastures, possibly impacting the agriculture industry[30]. Some farmers, however, are considering retiring agriculture land and using it to develop more profitable solar farms[31].

Scientists at Stanford University have developed a way to grow crops in solar farms. Computer-simulated experiments reveal that certain plants like agave could grow around solar panels. These plants would be beneficial to the solar panels as their roots could anchor the soil and foliage below and reduce dust kick-up. The agave plants would benefit from the solar panels as they could capture runoff water used to clean the solar panels. This system could also create a pathway to increase ethanol production, as the agave could be harvested and converted into biofuel.[32]

Construction of the Topaz Solar Farm, February 2012. Image from USFWS: [10]

Economic Impacts

Solar farm development and upkeep creates jobs. Between 2009 and 2014, a total of 10,200 solar-related construction jobs were created. Solar farms also created an additional 136 permanent operations and maintenance jobs which will likely persist throughout the lifetime of the solar facilities. [33]

The creation of solar farms also has a short-term boost on local economies. The California Flats Solar Project is expected to boost local commerce while workers make purchases in local shops and restaurants.[34]

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Chandler N. 2012. How does solar power help the environment? HowStuffWorks.com HowStuffWorks
  2. SunPower Corporation. 2016. Fact sheet: California valley solar ranch. Available from: https://us.sunpower.com/sites/sunpower/files/media-library/fact-sheets/fs-california-valley-solar-ranch-factsheet.pdf
  3. U.S. Department of Energy. 2015. California valley solar ranch. Available from: Energy.gov
  4. First Solar. 2017. Projects: Topaz solar farm. Available from: http://www.firstsolar.com/Resources/Projects/Topaz-Solar-Farm First Solar
  5. 5.0 5.1 BHE Renewables. 2017. Just the facts: Topaz solar farms. Available from: https://www.bherenewables.com/include/pdf/fact_sheet_topaz.pdf BHE Renewables
  6. First Solar, Inc. 2016. California flats solar project: Monterey County, CA. Report 03391_DS_NA. Available from: http://www.firstsolar.com/-/media/First-Solar/Project-Documents/CAFlats_03391_DS_NA.ashx First Solar
  7. Love J. 2015. Apple plans $850M solar plant in Monterey County to power all California operations. The Mercury News. Available from: http://www.mercurynews.com/2015/02/10/apple-plans-850m-solar-plant-in-monterey-county-to-power-all-california-operations/ The Mercury News
  8. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 2015. Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Panoche Valley Solar Facility, San Benito County, California. Volume 1.Panoche Valley Solar Facililty Draft EIR
  9. 9.0 9.1 Duke Energy Renewables. 2012. Panoche Valley Solar LLC.Duke Energy
  10. Union of Concerned Scientists. 2013. Benefits of renewable energy use. Available from: http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-energy/renewable-energy/public-benefits-of-renewable-power#.WOlhUNLytIA Union of Concerned Scientist
  11. Grover S. 2007. Energy, economic and environmental benefits of the solar American Initiative. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Subcontract Report: NREL/SR-640-41998.National Renewable Energy Laboratory
  12. California Department of Fish and Wildlife. 2016-2017. CDFW's response to renewable energy development in California. Available from: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Renewable-Energy CDFW
  13. H.T Harvey and Associates. 2010. Biological assessment for the California Valley Solar Ranch Project San Luis Obispo County, California. Prepared for: High Plains Ranch II, LLC. Department of Energy
  14. [http://www.harveyecology.com/california-valley-solar-ranch-project H.T Harvey & Associates
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 U.S. Department of Energy. 2011. Final environmental impact statement. Volume 1. Loan guarantee to Royal Bank of Scotland for construction and startup of the Topaz Solar Farm San Luis Obispo County, California.Department of Energy
  16. 16.0 16.1 (CDFW) California Department of Fish and Wildlife (US). 2013. Topaz Solar Farm Conservation Lands Habitat Mitigation and Monitoring Plan. Annual Report. Fresno (CA): CDFW. Available from: Topaz Preserve HMMP - Annual Report June 2013[1]
  17. The Nature Conservancy
  18. 18.0 18.1 Moler R. 2017. Protecting wildlife and creating renewable energy on the Carrizo Plain. U.S. Fish and Wildlife; Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office. USFWS
  19. (CDFW) California Department of Fish and Wildlife (US). 2013. Topaz Solar Farm Conservation Lands Habitat Mitigation and Monitoring Plan. Annual Report. Fresno (CA): CDFW. Available from: Topaz Preserve HMMP - Annual Report May 2014[2]
  20. 20.0 20.1 Monterey County Resource Management Agency: Planning. 2014. Draft Environmental Impact Report California Flats Solar Project. Volume 1: Report PLN120294.Monterey County Resource Management Agency
  21. Monterey County Resource Management Agency: Planning. 2014. California Flats Solar Project DEIR public comments. Monterey County Resource Management Agency
  22. Rincon Consultants, Inc. 2014. California Flats Solar Project Final Environmental Impact Report. Prepared for: Monterey County Resource Managing Agency: Planning Department. Monterey County Resource Management Agency
  23. County of San Benito. 2010. Notice of Preparation of a Draft Environmental Impact Report. Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project. Solargen Energy, Inc.San Benito County
  24. Aspen Environmental Group. 2010. Public scoping report, Solargen Energy, Inc. Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project. City of San Benito Planning and Building Inspection Services. San Benito County
  25. Aspen Environmental Group. 2010. Draft Environmental Impact Report,Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project. City of San Benito Planning and Building Inspection Services. San Benito County
  26. Aspen Environmental Group. 2010. Final Environmental Impact Report,Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project. City of San Benito Planning and Building Inspection Services.San Benito County
  27. 27.0 27.1 County of San Benito. 2010l C.6 Biological resources. Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project FEIR.San Benito County
  28. ESA. 2011. Draft Cluster I Solar Power Project Environmental Impact Report Report. SCH No. 2011071083. Prepared for: Imperial County Planning and Development Services. ftp://ftp.co.imperial.ca.us/icpds/eir/cluster-I-solar/06ch3-aesthetics.pdf
  29. Bane B. 2015. South Monterey County solar power plant begins recruiting workers. Monterey Herald. Available from: http://www.montereyherald.com/article/NF/20151130/NEWS/151139988
  30. Lee M. 2015. Solar energy blotting out nature, farms in California. The San Diego Union-Tribune. Available from: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/sdut-big-solar-big-impacts-2015oct19-story.html
  31. Kasler D. 2015. More California farmland could vanish as water shortages loom beyond drought. The Sacramento Bee. Available from: http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/water-and-drought/article46665960.html
  32. Than K. 2014. Stanford scientists model a win-win situation: growing crops on photovoltaic farms. Stanford News Service. [3]
  33. Philips P. 2014. Environmental and economic benefits of building solar in California: Quality careers-cleaner lives. Donald Vial Center on Employment in the Green Economy. University of California, Berkeley.[4]
  34. Wilson N. 2015. Solar project near Cholame will give SLO County's economy a boost. The Tribune. Available from:http://www.sanluisobispo.com/news/business/article39512118.html

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