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Controversial Solar Farm One Step Closer to Construction

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The Panoche Valley in San Benito County. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The Panoche Valley in San Benito County. (Craig Miller/KQED)

The controversial Panoche Valley Solar Farm is one step closer to construction. Environmental groups sued to stop the solar project, located near Hollister, but the suit was rejected.

Duke Energy and San Francisco-based firm PV2 are planning to build the 399 megawatt solar farm in the mostly agricultural valley. But Shani Kleinhaus from the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society said the project threatens migrating birds and three endangered animals: the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rat.

“Environmental groups are supportive of clean energy projects and solar projects,” she said. “But we’re not in support of siting such projects without regard to endangered species and environmental damage.”

A state court of appeals rejected the suit, which claimed PV2 hadn’t pursued alternatives like putting the project somewhere else.

Tammie McGhee of Duke Energy, said their plan includes habitat preservation.

“The project is a 28,000 acre footprint. Only 3,000 of those acres will actually have solar panels on them,” she said. “The other 23,000 acres will be for conservation and habitat preservation.”

The companies still have to finish environmental studies and find a company to buy the energy. Kleinhaus says her group will stay involved and continue to opppose the plan.

If it does clear the hurdles, construction would begin in 2015.

The San Jose Mercury News has more on the history of the battle in the Panoche Valley.

Solar project south of Silicon Valley wins a major victory in appeals courtThe environmental groups lost the first round in 2011. Then a San Benito County court rejected their arguments that county supervisors who approved the project had violated the California Environmental Quality Act and the Williamson Act, a state law that preserves ranchland by blocking development in exchange for lowering ranchers’ taxes. The court noted that the developers agreed to buy 23,000 adjacent acres — an area of cattle grazing land seven times the size of the area the solar panels would take up — and place them in permanent conservation easements as a way to offset the effects from the project.

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KQED did a two-part series about the Panoche Valley a few years ago, when a different company was trying to build the solar farm. (Solargen sold the project to PV2.)

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Category: Energy, Environment

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.