Guest View: Panoche Valley is wrong for solar project

Kim Williams, owner of Your Family Farm on Panoche Road and shown here in 2009 when the idea first arose, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the project.

The energy landscape in California is rapidly changing. In just a few short years, new wind, solar and geothermal power plants have put the state on track to achieve 33 percent clean energy by 2020. Governor Jerry Brown recently announced a plan to derive 50 percent of our electricity from renewable energy by 2030.  
New clean energy projects help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs and clean up our environment, but we must be sure they are not built on sensitive lands or threaten wildlife. With California’s wealth of opportunities to develop clean energy, our state can reduce carbon pollution while also avoiding or minimizing harm to our precious natural  heritage.
That’s why the Sierra Club and other organizations have promoted policies and planning efforts at the local, state and national level that are “smart from the start.” This means that potential damage to lands and wildlife are considered at the very beginning of planning for large clean energy projects.  With early planning, we can locate projects away from delicate lands and imperiled wildlife. Unfortunately, the Panoche Solar Farm is the complete opposite of “smart from the start” planning. It has run into vigorous opposition because the developer unwisely located it in an extraordinarily rare area that harbors a multitude of California’s unique and most fragile species.
Scientists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have identified the Panoche Valley as one of the three core areas in the entire state necessary for the survival and recovery of the highly endangered San Joaquin kit fox, endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard and giant kangaroo rat.  The Panoche Valley is home to numerous other threatened species, such as the state-threatened San Joaquin antelope squirrel and California tiger salamander.
The Audubon Society has named the valley as a Globally Important Bird Area, as it serves as a refuge for numerous rare bird species.
Since 2010, the Sierra Club has voiced our strong opposition to the development of large projects in this location. The problem is clear: development on the floor of the Panoche Valley ruins any hope of recovering the endangered wildlife that call it home.  
There is a better way to meet California’s climate and clean energy goals. California has many locations that would allow for sustainable, large-scale clean energy development.  The Nature Conservancy identified thousands of acres of low conservation value land in the Western San Joaquin Valley that are appropriate for solar. The proposed Westlands Solar Park, also in the San Joaquin Valley, is located on drainage-impaired farmland with low habitat value for wildlife and enjoys broad support from the environmental and agricultural communities.
The fact that the Panoche Solar Project has advanced while others in more benign locations have stalled underscores the need to incorporate conservation principles in energy planning and utility decision making from the start. As this project continues to be assessed for its environmental impact on the Panoche Valley, San Benito County residents who are concerned about this special place should demand that the valley be protected. California’s energy agencies should prioritize smartly sited renewable energy projects that don’t harm our wildlife heritage. Our state has a tremendous opportunity to continue our stewardship of our natural resources by insisting that our transition to a low-carbon world protects our lands, wildlife and water.  
Bill Corcoran is the western director for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign.

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