In what could mark a major breakthrough for the US solar industry, two of the country's largest project developers have inked an agreement with leading conservation groups that should allow two major solar farms to proceed without objections from wildlife campaigners.
SunPower Corp and Topaz Solar Farms, a project development subsidiary of thin film solar panel manufacturer First Solar, released a joint statementyesterday alongside the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity announcing that they had reached an agreement on plans for two proposed solar photovoltaic power plants in San Luis Obispo County, California.
A number of proposed solar farm projects in the south western US have faced delays and legal challenges in recent years as conservation groups have warned that they could harm delicate desert habitats and pose a threat to local wildlife.
Most notably, before receiving final planning approval, BrightSource Energy's 370MW Ivanpah solar project faced a series of challenges over the development's alleged impact on the endangered desert tortoise.
However, as a result of the new deal, the conservation groups have agreed to support SunPower's 250MW California Valley Solar Ranch and Topaz's 550MW Topaz Solar Farm, both of which are proposed for the Carrizo Plain in eastern San Luis Obispo County, in return for the developers investing in enhanced environmental protection measures.
The Carrizo Plain is a core recovery area for endangered San Joaquin kit foxes and giant kangaroo rats.
In a carefully worded statement, the developers and conservation groups acknowledged that "both companies have previously agreed to significant commitments to protect and preserve species in this important habitat area and have received project approvals based on environmental reviews by various federal, state and local agencies".
However, they added that following negotiations that were undertaken in "good faith" the companies had agreed to "a suite of additional environmental to further increase protection of the area".
In particular, SunPower and Topaz Solar have agreed to add a further 9,000 acres to the 17,000 acres of land already protected under the terms of the project's environmental permits, taking the total area protected as a result of the solar farms to around 40 square miles.
They have also announced plans to remove 30 miles of fencing from the area to allow greater wildlife movement, agreed to use no rodenticides during the construction or operation of the solar farms, and promised "significant financial contributions" to boost wildlife conservation efforts in the area.
The agreement was welcomed by California Governor Jerry Brown, who hailed the deal as further evidence of California's position as a leading solar technology hub.
"This is another step in positioning California as the national leader in solar technology," he said in a statement. "These projects and California's overall renewable energy industry will help create hundreds of thousands of jobs."