First Solar is scheduled to begin construction on AV Solar Ranch One, the world’s biggest solar photovoltaic project, on July 5 in Antelope Valley. But Development Director Jack Pigott has just begun facing off with residents of Fairmont, the nearby community.
Fairmont’s people are adamant about on-the-ground issues, like fences that will surround the 230-megawatt installation, the effect of fenced-off desert on hiking, horseback riding and other recreation, the impact of dust coming off the cleared and leveled land, and of wildlife displaced to their yards in the process.
They are even more concerned with how much water Solar Ranch One will require, who will administer desert lands purchased by First Solar to mitigate the project’s impacts, who will get the jobs at Solar Ranch One, and what public benefits First Solar will offer Fairmont in return for permanently altering the community.
The first time Pigott -- or anybody from First Solar -- faced the people of Fairmont, neither side was happy.
“When you’re this giant corporation,” David Kerr, President of the Fairmont Town Council, told Pigott, “and your project is deep in our area and you don’t respond to our requests for a meeting, it can only mean one of two things: laziness or that’s your policy.”
It was neither, according to Pigott. Since First Solar took on the project, he explained, the company has had over 100 meetings with 40 different groups, listening to and addressing concerns. At that time, he said, there was no Fairmont Town Council. The company was told Antelope Acres was the governing community.
That was true then, Kerr acknowledged. In November 2010, after a long struggle to free itself from what residents consider the dictates of Antelope Acres, Fairmont -- which was established as a farming district in the nineteenth century -- created its own town council. Kerr began requesting meetings with First Solar that December. His requests went unanswered.
Pigott said there was no response because the company was on Christmas season hiatus. “By December 2010,” Pigott said, “the plan for our project was done and mitigation measures were in place.” The only answers he had to the community’s concerns, he said, were those in the project’s environmental impact study (EIS), which was done publicly and transparently according to state and county guidelines.
By the time Pigott appeared at Fairmont’s Town Council, Kerr and his fellow citizens suspected the worst. “If you had been talking to us three or four months ago,” Kerr told Pigott, “you might have our answers.”
Pigott wearily but patiently listened to questions and explained the mitigations detailed in the thoroughly vetted EIS.
As a photovoltaic project, Solar Ranch One will use no more water on its 4,000-acre site than would be used by 12 houses, according to Pigott. Fences will be set back and off the ground to accommodate wildlife. Dust will be kept in check during construction by water and solvents and during operation by re-vegetation. Hiking and riding trails and recreational access will be available.
First Solar’s construction manager, Pigott said, will be living in the community during the 2.5 years of building. Both construction and permanent jobs will go to locals.
The contentious meeting concluded with Fairmont’s officers voting to hold further action, pending a follow-up meeting.
At that second meeting, it was reported that Antelope Acres, some twelve miles from the Solar Ranch One location, was granted $100,000 for its town council, $10,000 for its 4H Club and $10,000 for a community center, among other considerations. First Solar also donated mitigation lands to Antelope Acres’ chosen desert conservancy.
Fairmont, whose residents live within 500 feet of the site, has been granted nothing.
When First Solar’s Pigott told Fairmont’s residents he considered them to be part of the Antelope Acres settlement, the room erupted, according to an attendee.
Fairmont residents insisted they were not involved in the First Solar-Antelope Acres planning process. First Solar claimed they have Fairmont Town Council members’ names on planning meeting sign-in sheets.
At the end of the second meeting, differences remained unresolved. One attendee said she thought First Solar felt ambushed. “If they did,” she added, “they deserved it. We’re for green energy and we have the perfect location for it but they’re not taking our lives into consideration.”
“We’re not trying to stop them,” another resident said angrily, “but they’re giving so much to Antelope Acres and ignoring us.”
Fairmont’s Town Council voted to send a letter detailing its grievances to the Los Angeles County Planning Commission and request an emergency hearing. It tabled legal action, pending the Planning Commission’s response. And it formed committees to formally describe the mitigation measures that it seeks.
Alan Bernheimer, First Solar’s corporate spokesperson, said the circumstances are “regrettable” and the company is “trying to make up lost ground.”
More importantly, Bernheimer added, “we intend to keep meeting and working with them to resolve this. I understand they feel their point of view has not yet been taken into account. We will try to address that.”
Solar Ranch One construction may proceed as scheduled July 5 because Fairmont does not have funds for swift legal action. But Fairmont counts experienced attorneys among its residents and allies. First Solar could soon be faced with an injunction and a potentially costly disruption of plans.
“People are mad as hell,” a longtime Fairmont resident said, “and they’re not going to take it anymore.”