Rural Panoche Valley is worth saving

THE BIG PICTURE: Reduce oil addiction to honor victims

My friend Ron Erskine and I took a trip last month to the rural
Panoche Valley in southern San Benito County. We were invited by
Veronica Stork, who several years ago left San Francisco to live on
a small ranch secluded in a canyon off Panoche Road. We wanted to
take a peek at paradise and write

dueling columns

about our visit. You can read Erskine’s views of Panoche in
his

Getting Out

column in the Sports section.
My friend Ron Erskine and I took a trip last month to the rural Panoche Valley in southern San Benito County. We were invited by Veronica Stork, who several years ago left San Francisco to live on a small ranch secluded in a canyon off Panoche Road. We wanted to take a peek at paradise and write “dueling columns” about our visit. You can read Erskine’s views of Panoche in his “Getting Out” column in the Sports section.

During our visit to this valley hidden west of the hills bordering California’s Central Valley, we felt ourselves lost in an Eden. We drove along a road winding through pastures carpeted with wildflowers. This immense valley plain looks much like it did a century ago when San Benito County was the heart of California’s cowboy country. Unfortunately, this rustic heaven is in danger of being forever lost. Four years ago, Solargen Energy developed plans to cover the pastures of this paradise with a mega-sized photovoltaic power plant.

The Panoche Valley Solar Farm development would utilize 4,717 acres of private land and cost an estimated $1.2 billion. It would generate 399 megawatts of electricity from the immense solar panels that would spread across one-third of the valley’s floor. This is enough electric power for 400,000 homes. Besides electricity, it would also generate thousands of jobs in constructing the plant, as well as maintaining and operating it.

Many people who make their homes in the Panoche Valley are not happy with the thought of a solar farm being built across the bucolic land they love. The people who live here are independent-minded folks who will fight to save their countryside. During our visit, Erskine and I saw hand-painted signs posted along the road throughout the region that urged: “Save Panoche Valley, Stop Solargen.” We also chatted with the owner of one of the valley’s dairy farms who told us how Solargen’s plans would radically change the valley. A massive solar power plant would destroy ecologically sensitive habitats, endanger rare animal and plant species, and break up the tight-knit community of people who came here because of its rural isolation.

The folks of Panoche Valley know they’re going up against the politicians. Last year, the San Benito County Board of Supervisors approved Solargen’s Panoche Valley project as well as its environmental impact report. The main reason for the county supporting the solar power farm is its potential job creation and economic benefits.

The county supervisors have put a lot of faith in Solargen Energy’s promises. But over the course of the project’s development, the company has faced difficulty raising the vast capital required to fund construction of the photovoltaic plant. The future of the project’s financing remains in doubt. On April 19, the day before Erskine and I visited Panoche Valley, a San Francisco-based company called PV2 Energy acquired Solargen Energy’s assets. We’ll see if PV2 Energy has better luck at coming up with the capital.

In my heart, I have mixed feelings about the Panoche Valley Solar Farm project. We need initiatives that will help America develop its clean-tech industry in the coming decades. Our nation must move away from its addiction to fossil fuels and “go green” in its energy production and consumption. We must do this for a number of reasons, including maintaining our national security, invigorating our economy, creating new jobs and protecting our public health from illnesses related to pollution. But I also believe it would be hypocritical – and also an irony – for the benefits of renewable energy production to come at the cost of damaging our natural environment and resources.

With all the legal and financial challenges that the Panoche Valley Solar Farm project faces, it might take as long as 10 years to build the plant and start generating electric power. During that time, the world will see major advances in solar power technology. Similar to what has happened with computer chips over the last few decades, the production price of photovoltaic panels is dropping and the energy conversion efficiency is going up. We see exciting new innovations now in the works that will put solar energy production into roofing materials, glass windows and even roads. And as construction costs go down, expect to see many thousands of acres of parking lot space and rooftops covered by photovoltaic cells, reducing the need to place them far off in rural ranchlands.  

The Panoche Valley is worth a springtime trip when the wildflowers are blooming. If you want to take a peek at paradise, visit this scenic hideaway of our South Valley region. When you do, you’ll find it’s well worth saving from solar energy development.

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