SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) – The builders of a solar power project and environmentalists opposed to the project on grounds it would harm three endangered species have reached a settlement effectively ending their dispute, the parties said Friday.
Panoche Valley Solar, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison Development, has reached an agreement with three environmental organizations – the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society – that calls for the reduction and relocation of a utility-scale solar project to avoid potential harm to endemic endangered species.
“As we work toward lowering carbon pollution, it’s critical that new clean-energy development is not done at the expense of endangered animals and their habitat,” said Sarah Friedman, Sierra Club’s Senior Campaign Representative for the Beyond Coal Campaign. “Panoche Valley is critical habitat for three highly endangered species, and the development throughout the valley as originally planned would have been devastating. This settlement agreement came about after years of work to preserve the endangered wildlife and delicate habitat in this valley.”
The Panoche Valley, about 60 miles west of Fresno and bordered by the Diablo Range to the west and the Panoche Hills to the east, is one of the few valleys relatively undisturbed by development in California’s Central Valley. The valley affords critical habitat to three endangered species – the San Joaquin kit fox, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and the giant kangaroo rat.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a biological opinion in April 2016 as part of the environmental analysis for the proposed 247-megawatt solar farm, concluding the project would have no adverse effects on the three species.
The environmental groups sued almost immediately, saying plans for the project – which calls for the placement of arrays of 6-by-3-foot photovoltaic panels on 1,529 acres of a 2,154-acre site, would clearly impinge on wildlife habitat.
Despite being denied a temporary restraining order last August, the environmental groups continued to pursue the federal lawsuit until Friday’s announcement.
The settlement stipulates reducing the 247-megawatt facility by 100 megawatts, with the remaining arrays moved to a different site in Imperial County in extreme Southern California, where the impacts to endangered species are considerably less. Furthermore, the new project will only occupy approximately 1,300 acres, a reduction of approximately 900 acres, according to the announcement.
Meanwhile, the settlement provides permanent protection of a 26,000-acre site within the Panoche Valley to protect habitat designated as critical for the species.
“The Panoche Valley is a globally important landscape,” said Kim Delfino, Defenders of Wildlife’s California program director. “The new agreement recognizes the significant conservation value of the Panoche Valley, reduces the size of the project in this unique valley and moves half of the project to a better site outside of the valley.”
When the project was initially proposed in 2009, plans called for a 400-megawatt facility to be built on nearly 5,000 acres of land the green groups say serves as important wildlife habitat.
The grasslands that cover the Panoche Valley not only serve as important habitat for the fox, lizard and rat also provide habitat for various resident and migratory bird species. The National Audubon Society has designated the valley as a “Bird Area of Global Significance.”
Friday’s settlement is still subject to approval by Southern California Edison and the California Public Utilities Commission.
Mark Noyes, President and CEO of Panoche Valley Solar LLC, also called the settlement a win.
“We will work diligently with the other parties to obtain the remaining approval of SCE and the CPUC so that the conditions of the settlement can be fully implemented for the benefit of the Panoche Valley ecosystem and the citizens of California,” he said.