Three solar projects to be built near Calipatria were approved by the Imperial County Planning Commission on Wednesday.
Alhambra Solar, Arkansas Solar and Sonora Solar, all to be developed by Solar Gen 2, will cover about 1,450 acres of farmland and produce 150 megawatts of energy.
The original scope of Solar Gen 2’s projects included an additional site 558 acres in size, according to county staff, but after considering complaints from the public, the developer reduced the project size scope by 25 percent.
During the meeting, commissioner Dave Gaddis asked county staff if a map listing abandoned farmland was available for the applicant to view.
The map could be used to encourage solar developers to go to farmland that “is not that big of a deal for environmentalists,” Gaddis said.
This map is in the making, according to staff.
Building solar projects on farmland has been an issue of contention, and this project was in part similar for this reason.
One of the project sites is proposed on about 53 acres of prime farmland, said Cameron Bucher, Solar Gen 2 development director.
Moreover, Bucher said most of the Imperial Irrigation District-owned so-called trust lands are being farmed.
Moments later Gaddis made it clear that he was against building solar projects on farmland that is being used under all circumstances.
“Solar projects are tremendous things,” Gaddis said, “but to take prime farmland is absolutely ludicrous.”
The Planning Department should set parameters from the beginning and give alternatives to developers, Gaddis said.
Bucher agreed, but noted that such measures could increase land prices.
Similar to previous solar projects, Solar Gen 2 committed to use local labor “to the extent possible,” according to Bucher, and will create about 300 jobs during peak construction.
Bucher also acknowledged that labor will be brought “from out of town,” given that local labor is not trained in certain areas.
However, a scholarship fund of $374,000 by Solar Gen 2 and managed by Imperial Valley College was created to remedy the absence of a skilled labor force.
“This (fund) was something necessary if the community is even going to consider a project like this,” Bucher said.
Solar Gen 2 also established an agency in Imperial in charge of managing the flow of electricity that solar projects produced.
And this contribution is critical because it goes beyond construction employment, he said.