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First Solar PV Power Plants Help Protect Biodiversity while Generating Clean Electricity

Posted 13 February 2014 5:25 PM by Karen Drozdiak

Responsible land use and biodiversity protection are the cornerstone of one of First Solar’s core values: “Environmental Responsibility.” By building and operating environmentally friendly PV power plants, First Solar helps protect endangered animal and plant species while generating clean electricity that will contribute to the grid for 25 or more years. As part of our commitment to building and operating PV facilities that benefit the environment and communities around the world, First Solar engages with local stakeholders and strives to minimize environmental impacts by implementing responsible land use practices including soil preparation techniques, biodiversity monitoring, and land conservation. 

The 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farms, constructed by First Solar and owned by MidAmerican Solar, provide a leading example of how responsibly-developed utility-scale PV power plants can minimize impacts and help protect biodiversity. The Topaz Solar Farms are carefully sited on previously disturbed farmland in the Carrizo Plain of San Luis Obispo County - one of the sunniest locations in California. At Topaz, First Solar is currently testing a “light-on-land” soil preparation technique which includes mowing existing vegetation while leaving the root structure in place to help prevent erosion and discharge of silt from storm runoff in accordance with U.S. EPA regulations. In addition to being more beneficial to grasses and other species, mowing reduces soil disturbance, dust, and dust borne pathogens, uses less water, and enables faster land preparation. Although First Solar aims to apply this light-on-land technique to other projects whenever possible, mowing cannot be used on all sites as different geographical conditions, e.g. undulating topography, require different solutions. 

Biologists supervise mowing at MidAmerican Solar’s Topaz Solar Farm.

“Safety First” and “Environmental Responsibility” are also core values held by all First Solar associates. Prior to beginning work at the Topaz site, every First Solar worker receives training and information on the biology, habitat needs, and status of endangered species, as well as measures that are being taken to protect threatened or endangered species that may be found in the project area.  This training is standard practice at First Solar project sites where species of concern have been noted.

Daily biological monitoring is also conducted at Topaz throughout the construction process. Every morning before workers arrive, a team of biologists conducts a sweep of the Topaz site to clear the construction area and set up protective enclosures for any sensitive species found onsite. Biologists collect spatial data seven days a week and are involved in all aspects of construction. The data is used to develop resource maps that inform construction workers of closed off areas.

Each day, First Solar’s Topaz construction team starts their work shift with an Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) review session. Site workers are instructed to report sightings of nests, dens, burrows, or special-status species. Updated project worksite maps are reviewed daily for changes in exclusion areas where potential habitats may exist. Sensitive areas are avoided, including all wetlands, vernal pools, and locations with potential fairy shrimp habitat.

To manage research, monitoring, and conservation efforts, First Solar and MidAmerican Solar established a Biological Working Group with local stakeholders including the executive director of the Tejon Ranch Conservancy, the president of the non-profit North County Watch, the principal scientist from Althouse Meade, and a former planning commissioner. The Biological Working Group meets every other month to provide updates on species management and conservation projects.  In addition to the 3,520 acres of fenced project area that is left open to the San Joaquin kit fox and other species, Topaz Solar Farms is conserving over 17,000 acres of habitat within the Carrizo Plain for the perpetual protection of plant and wildlife resources.

Many species thrive alongside PV power plants, which can provide sanctuary from predators. The endangered San Joaquin kit fox, for example, is able to freely roam around the Topaz project site without encountering its major adversary, the coyote. A kit fox-friendly fence provides a gap large enough for the kit fox and other small mammals to pass through, but small enough to exclude their predators. Movement corridors were designed between arrays to facilitate passage throughout the project, enabling a variety of species including kit foxes, pronghorn antelope, and tule elk to roam across the project site.

Ongoing surveys and monitoring help determine the best management strategies for species conservation.  Kit fox scat surveys collect DNA to determine how many kit foxes visit the project area and what the home ranges are for each individual. The onsite biological team has partnered with the Endangered Species Recovery Program to fit kit foxes with GPS collars in order to monitor their movements, den use patterns, food habits, and survival rates. The collars enable the biologists to pinpoint the kit foxes on a daily basis to ensure they are protected from construction activities.

First Solar funded research on a herd of pronghorn antelope which was carried out by MidAmerican Solar and the Biological Working Group. That project enabled scientists to use GPS collars to track and study this North American antelope.

Through collaboration with local environmental agencies, the BWG, and MidAmerican Solar, Topaz Solar Farms is contributing to biodiversity protection throughout the Carrizo Plain.

Kit Fox
An on-site monitoring camera captures a kit fox returning to its den.

The Topaz Solar Farms, owned by MidAmerican Solar and constructed by First Solar, is currently producing 300 MW of power. Once completed in early 2015, the 550-MW PV facility will help reduce California’s greenhouse gas emissions by generating enough clean electricity to power more than 160,000 average homes per year. Watch for future First Solar stories on responsible land use and biodiversity protection.