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Photo by Tom Grey

Save Panoche Valley - Part 1

SCVAS opposes a landscape-scale solar array which would destroy an Important Bird Area of Global Priority.

The Solar Conundrum

By Bob Power, Executive Director, SCVAS
Reprinted from the January-February 2010 issue of the Avocet.

The continuing quest for a renewable energy silver bullet

Picture your favorite remote birding destination: Carrizo Plain? Kern River? Big Morongo Canyon? Mono Basin? Panoche Valley? Two out of five of those locations are targeted for world-scale solar installations. With billions of dollars at stake, are the other three far behind? Are solar arrays the next wave of landscape features that will dominate the California foothills for decades to come? No longer relegated to the southeastern Mojave desert, the solar future is knocking at Santa Clara County's door.

Last November, Governor Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-14-08 to streamline California's renewable energy project approval process and increase the state's commitment to renewable energy to the most aggressive in the nation at 33 percent renewable power by 2020.

There's no doubt that this is where we need to go as a state, nation, and world, but how do we get there? The low-hanging fruit is to take existing technology, streamline the approval process in rural counties and install massive solar infrastructure adjacent to the major transmission lines that crisscross the state. This is exactly Solargen Energy, Inc.'s strategy in Panoche Valley; a place where time has stood still for the past century that only the most adventurous birders and bay area backroaders have seen. Panoche Valley is an Audubon designated Globally Important Bird Area (IBA).

The rush to solar energy as the renewable energy silver bullet leaves it to the environmental advocacy community to ask the hard questions and seemingly stand in the way of what's good for the county, the state, the nation, the world.

There are many questions

Shouldn't the urban landscape possibilities be exhausted first? Where is the legislation that would allow rapid development of decentralized (read that as "roof-top") energy production? Who will take on the existing utility infrastructure and champion local energy production when it's so much easier to rely on these massive developments? While a massive plan to exploit solar energy from the Sahara desert to meet Europe's needs takes place, some believe Europe could generate all the domestic energy it needs through rooftop photovoltaic solar panels.

The largest solar development in the world is in Spain and spans 400 acres. The development at Panoche Valley is proposed at 4,000 acres. Where is the independent scientific review of the potential environmental impacts of an installation 10 times the size of any comparable project? Solar power is renewable but what about the materials needed to build this huge park of solar farms (steel, glass, concrete...)? Should we not calculate the whole life-cycle of this project? What is the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of such a huge project? What are the environmental manufacturing and recycling issues related to this proposal?

We've seen in the Altamont Pass where the unplanned-for development of renewable energy has taken an extraordinary toll on birds, particularly raptors. We can't afford any learn-as-we-go massive solar installations. Proposed large-scale development of any kind in an IBA should receive close scrutiny. But in the larger context of the next 50 years, Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society is involved in the Panoche Valley because solar energy is the wave of the future and we need to get this right the first time before solar proposals come to Coyote Valley, and San Felipe Lake, and San Antonio Valley, and Foothills Park.

How You can Help

Help us promote well-located solar power, a very important part of meeting the future energy needs of California. To work on this issue with our Environmental Action Committee (EAC) please contact the SCVAS Environmental Advocate, at advocate@scvas.org.

Join our Conservation Action Alert Network, by simply filling out this online form.