California Court Rebuffs Environmental Groups, Approves Solar Project

Published August 6, 2013

In the latest clash between renewable energy developers and environmental activists, a California appeals court approved plans to build one of the world’s largest solar power projects about 50 miles south of Silicon Valley.

Environmental Groups Unite
The Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, and a local group known as Save Panoche Valley tried to stop the project, saying the solar farm would harm endangered species such as the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the giant kangaroo rat.

A three-judge panel of California’s Sixth District Court of Appeals, however, dismissed environmentalists’ arguments the project should be located elsewhere. The Court also rejected their assertions land developers had set aside land of insufficient quality to offset harm to endangered species.

Environmental Offsets Challenged
San Francisco-based PV2 Energy joined forces with North Carolina-based Duke Energy to develop the Panoche Valley solar farm. The $1.8 billion project will have 4 million solar panels spread out over 3,000 acres (just under 5 square miles) of land.

The San Bonito County Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2010, hoping the solar farm would make the predominantly rural county a center for renewable energy.

Environmentalists vow to continue their fight, hoping to bring pressure on the developers to build the project elsewhere. 

More Delays Likely
The project is likely to experience further delays. One potential snag is the need for the solar developers to find a utility that will commit to buying the electricity. The project’s developers are targeting Pacific Gas & Electric, but they’re approaching other utilities as well. Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, are pressuring utilities not to sign contracts for electricity from the planned solar farm.

Another potential source of delay is the need for permits from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Environmental groups, well-schooled in the art of litigation, will likely bring suit against both government entities if they grant permits for the project.

Mandates Drive Development
Renewable power advocates say approval of the project is crucial if California is to meet its 33 percent renewable fuels mandate by 2020. 

“California is now faced with the reality of its renewable energy mandate,” said Daniel Simmons, director of state policy at the Institute for Energy Research.

“Renewables such as solar power are very land-intensive and, as California tries to achieve its 33 percent renewable power mandate, more conflicts involving endangered species and land conservation will be unavoidable,” Simmons explained.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]), is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.