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Outfoxed

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Wildlife and solar experts faced off—literally—over the future of solar technology in California Valley and the fate of the endangered kit fox.

In a small wood-floored building just a few miles from the proposed Carrizo Energy Solar Farm, members of the California Energy Commission, the Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had a veritable staring match with Ausra representatives. Ausra is an Australian-based company with plans to build a 1,020-acre solar-powered steam generator. Both sides sat at opposite ends of the room glaring at each other in frustration.

From Ausra’s perspective, their project is under assault by environmentalists who say the kit fox and other species are in danger, based on little more than speculation that the site could be a vital habitat. On the other side of the room, wildlife experts were adamant about high risk to kit fox populations due to an unprecedented build out in the area. Their biggest concern: the solar field could block the few core population groups from commingling, which could push the species closer toward extinction.

“Loss of a section of habitat, however you characterize that, is a loss of a section of habitat,” said Dave Hacker of Fish and Game.

Ausra acknowledged that there would be some impact and it would have to be mitigated, but the company protested that the project’s impact had been overstated and might lead to unfair, and possibly unnecessary, requirements. There was little common ground and no one in the room seemed to know how to mitigate the impacts or even what all the impacts would be.

“We’re just trying to understand what the basis is for determining that this is a [kit fox] habitat,” Ausra Vice President Perry Fontana told New Times.

The early environmental report is still working through the energy commission, which has jurisdiction over the Ausra project because it uses solar-heated panels to produce steam to power generators. Because of the generators, the projects falls under state jurisdiction and not the county.

Representatives from SunPower, a company that is proposing  a semiconductor-based solar plant, also attended the meeting. OptiSolar, a company that also is proposing a photovoltaic generating plant, did not send representatives. California Valley and the Carrizo Plains could become a premier spot for solar energy plants in California, experts told New Times. And Ausra is the first in the series of projects looking to pump renewable energy into the PG&E grid.

But for now, Ausra’s project has reached a stalemate. People on both sides of the issue seemed exhausted and unable to find a middle ground.

“At times today I felt like I was in an episode of Star Trek,” said Babak Naficy, representing ECOSLO, “where there were parallel realities colliding in this room.”

—Colin Rigley

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