Enviro groups file lawsuit over 247-MW Panoche Valley Solar project

The Sierra Club and Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society have challenged the County of San Benito’s certification of its final environmental impact report for the 247-MW Panoche Valley Solar LLC project.

The lawsuit, filed in the San Benito County Superior Court, stated that the county failed to consider the dire effect of California’s historic drought on wildlife that are already on a path to extinction without intervention. The lawsuit said the county also ignored information about the Panoche Valley’s role as a climate change refuge for at least one endangered species, and about how the project could also adversely affect vital groundwater resources in the area.

“The Panoche Valley is a place of unique ecological value, important for protecting California’s natural legacy,” said Sarah Friedman, Campaign Representative with the Sierra Club, in a June 19 statement. “It is home to endangered wildlife that have already been pushed to the brink by California’s historic drought. If this land is developed, it will be a potentially irreversible blow to several species already teetering on the edge of extinction. While more solar power in California is a good thing, the Panoche Valley must be protected from any type of development.

“The County’s environmental review ignored new information about the extent of California’s drought and how it may affect the ability of the wildlife species to survive and recover. It ignored new information about recent, severe declines in the population of endangered giant kangaroo rat, and the effects of that decline in prey on the critically endangered San Joaquin kit fox. The County also ignored new scientific evidence about the effects of climate change on the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the Panoche Valley’s importance in providing a future climate refuge for that species.”

“The project would cover half of the valley floor, decimating an irreplaceable landscape of unique ecological value, and the groundwater impacts will worsen drought conditions at the worst possible time for the delicate ecosystem of the Valley,” said local rancher Kim Williams. “That’s why our community is fighting back against the misguided and ecologically destructive Panoche Valley project.”

The lawsuit alleges the county’s environmental review of the project  failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) in that it fails to adequately disclose, analyze and/or mitigate the project’s environmental impacts. The lawsuit said the county also ignored information on California’s historic drought and the drought’s effects on threatened and endangered species including new information on the rapid decline of the  endangered giant kangaroo rat, a keystone species on which the critically endangered San Joaquin Kit Fox relies for prey.

The Panoche Valley Solar project is not necessary to meet California’s climate or renewable energy goals, the Sierra Club said The Nature Conservancy identified hundreds of thousands of acres in the Western San Joaquin Valley alone of low biodiversity and agricultural value. Developing the Westlands Water District lands in nearby Kings and Fresno Counties for solar has broad support from farming and environmentalists, who are working together with state and local governments and the solar industry to find a way to develop this amazing solar resource and provide a win for the environment, it added.

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 1,929 MW of clean energy and between 11,000 and 15,000 job-years, according to estimates by California’s Clean Energy Future.

The Sierra Club also complained March 12 that the California Public Utilities Commission that day approved a power purchase agreement for the 247-MW Panoche Valley Solar Project with power customer Southern California Edison, even though the club said the project would have this unacceptable environmental impact. The commission approved a renewable portfolio standard (RPS) eligible power purchase agreement between Southern California Edison (SCE) and Panoche Valley Solar LLC. In October 2014, the utility applied for approval of a 20-year renewable energy power purchase agreement (PPA) with Panoche. The PPA was executed through SCE’s 2013 RPS solicitation.

The commercial operation target date for this photovoltaic project is Jan. 1, 2019. The project is being developed by PV2 Energy LLC. The expected annual generation to be purchased from the project is 666 Gigawatt-hours (GWh). The Panoche facility will interconnect at the Q829 230-kV switching station which connects to Pacific Gas and Electric’s Moss-Panoche/Coburn-Panoche 230 kV transmission line and intersects the project site.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.