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OptiSolar Topaz Solar Farm

STATUS: In progress, with opposition

TYPE: Solar

OPPOSITION: Local Residents; Alliance for Responsible Energy Policy; and the Desert Communities Protection Campaign


BACKGROUND: The 550MW Topaz Solar Farm Project would utilize relatively low-cost, thin film PV panels designed and manufactured by OptiSolar. On August 14, 2008, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. announced an agreement to purchase all the power generated by the Topaz power plant. The Topaz Solar Farm will be located in the northwestern corner of the Carrizo Plain, San Luis Obispo County, and is the largest utility scale photovoltaic project announced worldwide. The project is expected to begin power delivery in 2011 and be fully operational by 2013.

Local community groups are opposing the project. Environmentalists are concerned about the Mojave ground squirrel, the desert tortoise and the burrowing owl. Local residents describe themselves as "desert survivors" who are unhappy about the proliferation of solar projects planned for their home turf. Residents say, "We're tired of everyone looking at the desert like a wasteland." Many argue that renewable energy targets should be done through rooftop solar. Worries over the impact on wildlife are also dragging out the permit process for OptiSolar.

The area is home to the San Joaquin kit fox, listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, according to the state Fish and Game Department. Other wild animals, including tule elk, pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls and California condors, also inhabit the area and because of habitat needs, wouldn't be able to coexist with the solar project, the agency concluded. The agency's solution: for every acre of wetland and riparian habitat lost to OptiSolar's project, the company should purchase an acre of land and convert it into livable habitat.

These initial permitting difficulties have been magnified by the nation's economic downturn, which has hit OptiSolar hard. On January 9, 2009, the company laid off 300 employees, about half its staff, to save cash while it looks for more funding.

On October 29, 2010, the San Luis Obispo Planning County published the Draft Environmental Impact Report for Topaz.

SOURCES: OptiSolar web site: http://optisolar.com/old_optisolarsite/081408_opti_pge_sp.htm;
New York Times:  http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/24/business/businessspecial2/24shrike.html?ref=businessspecial2;
San Francisco Gate: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/14/BUP412B774.DTL;
Sacramento Business Journal: http://sacramento.bizjournals.com/sacramento/stories/2009/01/05/daily64.html;
First Solar: http://www.firstsolar.com/communities/topaz/whatsnew.php

Last updated November 8, 2010