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Jamestown solar panel project worth exploring

    When it comes to generating bad news and costing taxpayers cash, it’s tough to top Tuolumne County’s landfill site off Campo Seco Road.
    The 1974 purchase of the Jamestown-area acreage as a dump was itself controversial. But operating it was nowhere as costly as the repeated and largely unsuccessful attempts to seal off the 1.5 million cubic yards of potentially toxic garbage dumped before the landfill shut its gates in 1995.
    In the years since, these closure attempts have cost the county more than $14 million, have brought ultimatums and fines from the state, have generated lawsuits and have forced the county to borrow millions to finally do the job right.
       So amid all this gloom at the landfill, it’s good to see a ray of sunshine.
    That figurative ray comes courtesy of Alltech Environmental, a Sonora firm that wants to set up an array of huge solar panels next to the decommissioned dump, make energy with those rays of sun and selling it.
    What’s more, Alltech wants to lease the land from the county for $10,000 a year, with an option to buy it later.
    The 91 acres at issue is not the landfill itself — that would be too much to ask.
    Instead, the parcel is next to the 54-acre former dump. The county bought it in the mid-1980s as a potential expansion site, but when voters in 1992 said no to a parcel tax that would have funded the annex, those plans were abandoned.
    Which doesn’t mean that the county acreage suddenly became valuable investment property, the future home to a new government complex or the site of a sought-after industrial park. Instead, thanks to its problem-prone, potentially toxic neighbor, it was all but worthless.
    Until now.
    Alltech CEO Terry Rice filed the lone reply to the county’s call for development proposals on the parcel.
    Earlier, he had proposed the solar layout on county-owned land at the old Sonora Mining Corp. site west of Jamestown. But the nod instead went to Vince Estell, a Modesto developer who plans an elaborate botanic garden and adjoining recreational complex on the land.
    Rice and Alltech now propose at least 2,240 solar panels guided by trackers which will keep them aimed at the sun for greater efficiency. The 20 megawatts generated could supply nearly a third of Tuolumne County’s electrical needs, although energy would go directly into the area’s power grid.
    Rice estimates that the landfill-area complex will employ up to 20, have an annual payroll of $1.22 million and could generate $10 million a year. There is also the potential for growth, he said, as profits could be reinvested.
    Skeptics might say that Alltech is a small, unproven firm, that the county needs a much better deal and that the whole plan is just too good to be true.
    But doubters should consider what the county has earned off this land over the past 25 years — nothing.
    Sure, at the rate of $10,000 year, it would take 1,400 years in rent to cover landfill closure costs. But what other possibilities do we have?
    With gas prices increasing almost daily, a proposal to generate clean, inexpensive energy couldn’t be more timely. And there’s a delicious irony in that this environmentally sound project will be next to one of this county’s most notorious ecological trouble spots.
    The Board of Supervisors, remember, has voted only to open negotiations. Nothing has been signed and no commitments have been made.
    All the board is saying is that Alltech’s idea deserves further exploration — a conclusion with which we thoroughly agree.

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