Will Summit Talks Save Solar Ranch One?
As the September 30 deadline looms on federal loans, can First Solar find common ground with its neighbors?
Some substantive agreements and a possible path forward have emerged in the first high-level sit-down between First Solar and local Antelope Valley leaders, but it is not clear yet whether these developments will be enough to prevent the neighbors of Solar Ranch One from filing an injunction to stop construction. First Solar wants to build Solar Ranch One, a 230-megawatt cadmium telluride (CdTe) thin-film photovoltaic (PV) project, which will be California’s biggest solar PV installation and one of the biggest in the world, in the western Antelope Valley. Its three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar federal loan guarantees will be forfeited if construction does not get substantially underway by September 30, 2011. A settlement would, leaders of Fairmont and other local own councils say, serve as a template for the estimated 12 solar projects on the drawing boards for the area and the 20 more expected to follow in the sun-drenched desert an hour northeast of Los Angeles. The talks’ success would also mean local jobs, economic benefits and a more acceptable project site in their neighborhood. The region’s leaders are fighting for concessions and, they add, some kind of compensation for the loss of a way of life on the beautiful if stark high desert floor between the San Gabriel Mountains and the Tehachapi Mountains, as their Valley becomes the engine of California’s New Energy economy. As with a lot of large solar projects, finding middle ground can be tough. Locals say the company is reluctant to negotiate. Solar companies, however, point to the number of hoops they must jump through to get projects completed. When First Solar set out to develop Solar Ranch One in 2008, it was directed to the nearby Antelope Acres Town Council. The company held more than 100 stakeholder meetings and conformed to all federal, state and local guidelines in obtaining the project’s permit. It also paid $140,000 in financial considerations to Antelope Acres, which is roughly 12 miles from the project site. Fairmont, an agricultural community founded in the nineteenth century that is literally across the street from Solar Ranch One, constituted a Town Council in November 2010, after First Solar’s preparations were complete. Fairmont’s subsequent attempts to get the developer to recognize it and negotiate considerations were fruitless until a July 2 fire aggravated the situation. At a July 7 meeting about the fire, Fairmont leaders and First Solar representatives found their way past hostilities to an incipient meeting of minds.The July 14 summit was convened by Norm Hickling, a representative of County Supervisor Michael Antonovich and a figure widely viewed as being a neutral broker capable of winning Los Angeles County Planning Commission approval for any compromises reached. “This is just the beginning,” he told the parties, of “a greater dialogue.” The company was conciliatory. “First Solar is committed to the communities it works in,” said Jim Woodruff, First Solar’s Vice President for State and Local Affairs, to open the meeting. “We have created the wrong impression with the people in this room. We are deeply apologetic about that. We want to get on the right foot going forward.” The local leaders immediately launched into a catalog of concerns, but Hickling rode the sometimes rambunctious group skillfully, steering them toward common ground with First Solar. The most concrete area of agreement was on how First Solar can keep the estimated 300 temporary and 15 to 20 permanent jobs at Solar Ranch One local. Construction Manager Gary Baumeister promised concrete efforts to deliver the first jobs and subcontracting opportunities to residents of the represented towns. Much discussion went to what might seem a less important issue -- namely, the fences that will surround the First Solar facility. For those who live in the area adjacent to the project, fences are what they will be looking at for decades to come. And as Attorney David Jeffries, a Fairmont Town Council officer, and Richard Skaggs, who led the Oso township delegation, suggested as they pressed the question, First Solar’s willingness to adapt their fencing plans is an indication of their real willingness to accommodate the locals’ larger concerns. In the end, both sides agreed to consider the fencing plan in last spring’s Fairmont-NRG Solar settlement that allowed the Alpine Solar project to go forward.“There’s your model,” Hickley told both sides, noting they had planted “the seeds of an agreement.” Because the NRG Solar settlement included financial considerations from the developer to Fairmont, Hickley’s “There’s your model” statement may have much larger implications. More problematic is the donation of mitigation lands that First Solar made through Antelope Acres to the Desert Mountains Conservancy Authority (DMCA). According to Fairmont’s Jefferies and Pat Kennedy, that land will wind up under the control of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “These people have been sucking land out of this area,” Kennedy alleged. “The people around here aren’t too happy about that.” In addition, Kennedy said, “They have the land registered as recreational and for animal habitat,” but have announced “it will be fenced off. It’s dead land.” Because First Solar legal counsel Peter Gutierrez said the company is contractually locked into that arrangement, a subsequent meeting between Gutierrez and Jefferies was arranged. “Let the attorneys talk,” Hickley advised. No such issue came up in the NRG Solar settlement, making a precedent-setting, satisfactory resolution with First Solar even more crucial. Hickley’s schedule prevented substantive discussion of compensation from First Solar to the Town Councils but First Solar’s Woodruff said in a post-meeting statement the discussions were “productive,” adding, “We are happy to be making progress with our neighbors.”Fairmont residents privately said they will continue to watch for signs of cooperation -- and they'll keep their injunction handy.