Local News

Monday, Jan 11 2010 08:59 PM

County to grapple with pluses, drawbacks of solar gold rush

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    By Henry A. Barrios

    Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Airport Director, Jack Gotcher, right, and Airport engineer John G. Hipskind walk through the 5 acre site at Meadows Field where solar panels were installed to generate electricity for the airport.

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    By Henry A. Barrios

    Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Airport Director, Jack Gotcher, left, and Airport engineer John G. Hipskind walk through a 5-acre site of solar panels that were installed on airport land at Meadows Field. The solar panels keep track of the sun to get the most exposure to the sun.

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    By Henry A. Barrios

    Henry A. Barrios / The Californian A five-acre site of solar panels track the sun to capture as much of its rays as possible. The site capable of generating 750 kilowatts of AC electricity for the airport at Meadows Field.

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BY JAMES BURGER, Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County's reliable relationship with the sun has become an attractive lure for companies who want to convert sunlight to electricity here.

This year county planners will be able to process 12 photovoltaic solar power plant projects that, together, would cover thousands of acres of Kern County land.

On Tuesday Kern County supervisors will consider contracts -- totalling $2.4 million -- with the two consulting companies that will prepare environmental reports for each of the 12 projects.

Developers of the projects, six in the Central Valley section of Kern County and six in the desert areas, will pay for the work.

Using two consultants is a way to streamline environmental work and help the solar power companies get a shot at project approval before a deadline for federal stimulus money expires at the end of 2010, said Lorelei Oviatt, special projects chief for the Kern County Planning Department.

Behind the 12 projects are more solar developers sniffing around the county's jurisdiction, Oviatt said. But only 12 projects will make it into the development pipeline for 2010.

So far the county has heard from proponents of about 60 potential solar projects.

Of those, about 22 projects seem likely to move into the planning process, Oviatt said.

Those 22 projects could cover nearly 20 square miles of ground with solar cells -- an area slightly larger than the cities of Delano and Tehachapi.

The biggest challenge to these projects is their voracious need for land.

Photovoltaic solar power is created when specially treated panels are bombarded by sunlight. The light frees electrons at the atomic level and those electrons create a low level of electrical current.

Oviatt said it takes about six acres covered in solar panels to generate one megawatt of electrical power.

"One of the challenges for these projects has been finding the right piece of property," Oviatt said.

The issue of land is what raises the most concerns from people at this point.

Local activist Gordon Nipp of the Sierra Club has been preaching the gospel of "distributed" photovoltaic power -- the kind you install on your home -- to home builders and buyers for years.

"I have solar on my roof and I produce about three-quarters of my electricity," he said.

In theory, he said, he supports utility-level solar developments as well.

"In general we should all be supportive of these things. They do address global climate change issues. They do address air quality issues," he said.

But Kern County will need to watch for the projects' potential impacts on protected animal species and farmland.

"If they're going to be built on farmland, there needs to be mitigation for farmland loss," Nipp said.

The same is true for animal habitat.

Oviatt said her goal with the upcoming environmental reviews is to make sure those exact challenges are overcome.

Supervisor Jon McQuiston, whose desert territory is in the heart of some of the proposed projects, has a different take on the impacts of converting that much land to a new use.

Unlike wind power projects, Oviatt said, solar projects are exempt from the property tax increase that would usually result from the investment of billions of dollars in property improvements.

But solar power, she said, is the most expensive method of producing alternative power and developers are extremely concerned about excess costs.

Without the increased taxes, McQuiston said, Kern County faces the challenge of providing police, fire and other critical services to newly developed solar projects without a revenue stream to fund that protection.

County leaders need to make sure the opportunities of creating a burgeoning alternative industry in Kern County are handled well.

"Clearly with solar energy, Kern County is a pristine location," McQuiston said. "It's a real plus opportunity for Kern County. We're plowing new ground and we need to make sure we get it right."

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