San Benito Solar Project Gutted After Opposition From Environmentalists

A massive solar energy project slated for California’s Panoche Valley has been eviscerated thanks to opposition from an unlikely source: environmentalists.

The project, first proposed in 2009, was expected to be one of the largest solar endeavors in the world, providing enough clean energy to power some 100,000 homes. But shortly after its approval by the San Benito Board of Supervisors, three environmental groups sued. They said the project put a number of endangered animals at risk, including a giant kangaroo rat, a lizard, the tri-colored blackbird, and the San Joaquin kit fox.

A legal settlement with the three groups was reached Friday by Panoche Valley Solar, a subsidiary of Consolidated Edison Development, which is building the project. Per the terms, the project will be scaled back significantly.

The Sierra Club’s Sarah Friedman hailed the agreement as a workable compromise.

“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,” she said.

But San Benito’s supervisors are singing a different tune.

“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 environmental groups should have been our allies,” Botelho added. “They are the ones pushing the state to reduce carbon emissions. I just don’t understand it.”

The leaner project will help power about 32,500 homes -- an improvement, sure, but a drop in the bucket compared to 100,000. The county will receive nowhere near the amount of revenue it had once hoped for from the project. It’s not even going to make money off the purchase of the solar panels because Con Edison purchased them in such a way that the sales taxes go to San Francisco.

Supervisors aren’t just angry with the environmentalists. They’re miffed at Con Edison, which “basically raped and pillaged” the county in the harsh words of Supervisor Jerry Meunzer. They’re considering filing a lawsuit against the company for violating the terms of its 2010 development agreement.

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