Solar companies learn to play nice with environmentalists

As more solar farms arise in the sunny corners of the U.S., it’s inevitable that solar developers will have to play ball with environmental groups. First Solar (s FSLR) and SunPower (s SPWRA) announced an agreement on Tuesday with the Sierra Club and others to add thousands of acres near their proposed projects for wildlife protection.

The agreement calls for the two companies to add 9,000 acres to the 17,000 acres they had already planned to set aside for wildlife protection in the Carrizo Plain of San Luis Obispo County, California, where First Solar plans to build the 550 MW Topaz Solar Farm and SunPower will construct the 250 MW California Valley Solar Ranch. The companies will buy the 9,000 acres and use conservation easements to protect them from development in perpetuity, said Ingrid Ekstrom, a spokeswoman for SunPower, which expects to complete the land purchase within 12 months after the completion of the solar project in 2013, she added. The timeline for the land purchase will be similar for First Solar, said First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer.

The two companies also promise to both remove 30 miles of fences to make it easier for wildlife to travel through the protected area and to avoid using chemicals designed to kill rodents since the region is home to the endangered San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo rats.

In addition, First Solar and SunPower will contribute money to help the county buy undeveloped land in the Carrizo Plain for wildlife protection, Bernheimer said. Both companies declined to provide the financial details of the agreement, which they signed with not only the Sierra Club, but also with the Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity.

Getting used to environmentalists

Solar trough tech

The agreement goes above what the companies are obligated to do as conditions of securing local, state and federal permits. Signing the peace treaty with the environmental groups helps the companies avoid any potentially lengthy and costly lawsuit.

The agreement is notable not only because it involves two giant solar projects and two of the largest U.S. solar companies, but also because it represents what is to come as solar energy development expands in the country. California and many other states require their utilities to increase the amount of renewable energy they sell to their customers, the result of which is a big lineup of proposed solar fields that are mostly destined for the southwestern region of the country.

These large solar projects, called utility-scale power plants because they are built for utilities, are set to grow from the 266.5 MW added in 2010 to an estimate of 886 MW in 2011, according to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

Upfront negotiations speed up the process

“While we were able to work through the problems caused by siting large solar projects in environmentally sensitive areas and on important wildlife habitat, we hope the main lesson learned here is that it is much faster and less complicated to do the proper planning up front — and to avoid sensitive lands altogether,” said David Graham-Caso, a spokesman for Sierra Club, via email.

SunPower and First Solar are not the first or the last solar companies that will have to give concessions to environmental and community groups in order to avoid legal fights. Lawsuits already have been filed against the federal government and California over their approval of solar farms, such as the 392MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System being built by BrightSource Energy in the Mojave Desert.

Earlier this year, the California Supreme Court tossed out two lawsuits brought by the Sierra Club and others against the California Energy Commission over the approval of the 663.5 MW Calico Solar project.

Photo of Carrizo Plain from  the Sierra Club