On California Governor Brown’s marching orders, First Solar is pushing ahead on one of the world’s biggest solar photovoltaic (PV) projects.
“Some kinds of opposition you have to crush,” the Governor recently told a conference of renewables developers, adding, “You have to push [... or] we’re not going to get to the goal” of providing the state with a third of its power from renewable energy by 2020.
“We are well into construction,” First Solar Vice President Jim Woodruff said, “and making good progress.”
The company may also be making progress on what have been contentious relations with leaders of the Western Antelope Valley (AV) communities around the sprawling 2,000-acre AVSR1 site it bought from NextLight and sold to and is developing for Exelon.
As construction jobs go to Valley residents, questions about the use of outsiders quiet. “We have hired over 100 local residents,” Woodruff said. “There may be some difference about what we mean by 'local.' But certainly within the immediately adjacent area, as well as the broader Palmdale-Lancaster area, a lot of those folks are gainfully employed on the site.”
“Everybody wishes there were more jobs,” said Mel Layne, President of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance. But, he added, with the recessionary economy and the housing construction slowdown, “It’s more than we have.”
Factors such as a road closure and the use by heavy-duty construction vehicles of local commuting routes continue to create traffic and safety complaints.
Woodruff said the county-permitted temporary closure of one route (which he termed “an inconvenience, but fortunately, a temporary inconvenience”) was necessary, while First Solar reinforced a California Aqueduct crossing with concrete to protect the flow of water. That route has now reopened.
In addition, Woodruff said the company has asked the community to report traffic and safety issues so it can respond. “There are 800 numbers, email addresses, and cell phone numbers available at the site,” he said, adding that locals can also contact the Highway Patrol. “Safety is a very significant concern for First Solar.”
The community was in a furor over dust storms created when the ground was cleared for building. “The response to that has been to have 24/7 (including weekends) monitoring on site,” Woodruff said. “It’s a high-wind area,” he added, “so we try to respond as quickly as we can.”
According to community leaders, First Solar expressed a willingness to spare them from having to live with prison-like fencing around the site’s perimeter. Yet photos show chain-link and razor wire, the fencing that was approved in the company’s permit before the communities implored First Solar to change their plans.
“We’ve heard concerns,” Woodruff acknowledged, “about the visual effect.” But, he said, “We are building a large solar project [... and] it’s in our interest and the community’s interest to have a secure perimeter. And the fencing type that was used was authorized by the county.”
Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’, according to an old desert maxim. Residents who seem to know a lot about water usage and are watching carefully claim First Solar is exceeding its permitted water consumption level.
“There is an annual allotment during construction of 150 acre-feet per year, and we are well within that allotment,” Woodruff said. “It’s not in our interest -- or anybody’s interest -- to fail to comply with the conditions imposed with our conditional use permit.”
Based on data being carefully collected by the LA Regional Planning Commission on behalf of the County, and by independent sources, First Solar has not exceeded its 2011 allotment since construction began in September, according to the region’s Deputy County Supervisor Norm Hickling.
Water use, Hickling said, will continue to be monitored by the Planning Commission. And, he noted, the County has a Public Works Inspector specifically tasked to the issue. The meter, Hickling added, will start over on January 1, 2012.
Perhaps the biggest question for both locals and outside observers is why First Solar insists on excluding the media from its talks with community leaders about these and other contentious issues.
All the elected officials participating in the discussions have urged that the meetings be open and transparent. Hickling, on behalf of the County, has gone out of his way to open the discussions to the media.
Yet First Solar demands they remain closed.
“People understand the power of the media and so they act and say things differently,” explained Alan Bernheimer, the First Solar Director of Communications, and “we think we can resolve these things more amicably and more rapidly if differences aren’t amplified in the media.”
Differences remain and new ones are expected to arise as construction proceeds. “The project is fully permitted and going forward,” Bernheimer added. “But neighbors have concerns, and we’d like to hear them and do what we can.”
The meetings, closed by First Solar to the media, are expected to continue.
“It’s understandable that there will be concerns and it’s only reasonable for the community to expect that we’ll provide a forum within which to talk about issues and concerns, and that’s what we’ve done,” Woodruff said. “That is part of a responsible project development approach.”
But, the community and others wonder, is it responsible to resist openness?