Solar panel farm is rising in the west

By Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat July 16, 2013 11:30 am

A large solar energy project west of Jamestown is well on its way to completion and expected to be online by the end of the summer.

Bay Area energy firm Ecoplexus is installing almost 6,000 solar panels affixed to 100 mounting structures on a 14.6-acre property adjacent to Sierra Conservation Center, the state prison off O’Byrnes Ferry Road. The solar farm project almost stalled recently because of environmental concerns.

Bill Nevin, director of business development with the company, said the project is moving along once again. When finished, it is expected to create a handful of jobs.

“Everything has been worked out there,” Nevin said of the environmental concerns. “We’re currently under construction. The certification of delivery date is expected to be at the end of August.” That is the date when the plant will start delivering power to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. grid, he said.

An initial agreement with the utility company required the project to be up and running by July 15. But an issue came up in the spring betweenEcoplexus and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency when the environmental agency identified the site as potential habitat for the threatened California tiger salamander.

The finding complicated the planning process and threatened to delay the project. However, the county Board of Supervisors in June agreed to change some terms of the permit to allow construction to move forward and for the developer and Fish and Wildlife to work out their issues independently.

When completed, the solar farm will generate enough power for 500 homes. It is one of the first to make use of a new California Department of Conservation program that encourages renewable energy. The program allows land preserved as agricultural land through the Williamson Act to be used for solar generation. The act provides property tax exemptions to encourage farmland and open-space preservation.

According to the state Department of Conservation, this was the second solar project that has been proposed through the state program.

Nevin said the Mother Lode could see more projects like this if the state continues to push for renewable energy development, with its open land and plenty of sun.

“I would say Tuolumne County has a lot of good potential,” he said.