Giant California solar project cut back after environmentalists oppose it

Plans for what was once billed as one of the world’s largest solar power projects will be scaled back dramatically following years of opposition from three environmental groups who filed lawsuits over an endangered rat and other species they said would be harmed by its construction.

The settlement announced Friday over the Panoche Valley solar project in the remote ranchlands of San Benito County, about 25 miles south of Hollister, highlights the difficulty of building large renewable-energy projects in California.

The compromise was hailed by its developer, New York-based Con Edison Development, as well as the Sierra Club, the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society and Defenders of Wildlife as a “win-win” for renewable energy and wildlife.

“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, a senior representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Los Angeles.

But San Benito County supervisors, who were not included in the settlement talks, are furious, saying they will lose out on millions of dollars in taxes that they were promised when they originally approved the larger project in 2010.

“I can barely speak because I’m so angry,” said Supervisor Anthony Botelho. “This would have generated much-needed revenue. All you have to do is drive down there and see the conditions of our roads. We have minimal amounts of public safety. This was going to be a big thing, but the rug was pulled out from under us. And it was all done in secret.”

The original project, first proposed by a company called Solargen in 2009, would have consisted of 1.2 million solar panels producing 399 megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 100,000 homes.

After San Benito County — with a population of only 58,000 — approved it, three environmental groups sued, saying the county had not adequately protected the endangered giant kangaroo rat, blunt-nosed leopard lizard and San Joaquin kit fox, along with bird species such as the tri-colored blackbird that live in the ranchlands.

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