As two noted environmental activists and Sierra Club members, Pat Veesart and Carl Zichella agree on most things. But there’s one thing they don’t see eye to eye on — the three commercial solar power plants proposed in the eastern part of San Luis Obispo County.
Zichella is the Sierra Club’s renewable energy program director for California. Veesart is a Carrizo Plain resident and code enforcement officer for the state Coastal Commission.
Their disagreement is a common one. The three plants bring such a complicated mix of environmental costs and benefits that it’s easy to come down on either side of the issue.
Consider their answers to these questions:
Q: Is the Carrizo Plain a good place for solar plants?
Zichella: Yes, it’s one of the best places that could be found. “These seem to be good sites, in fact, very good sites.”
Veesart: No, they will be an ecological disaster for the area. “From a wildlife protection aspect, this is right smack dab in the middle of the highest concentration of endangered species in the state.”
Zichella: Generations of farming have taken place in the area and left it disturbed but unpopulated. “If an area has been plowed twice a year for the past 20 years it’s going to be less valuable ecologically than undisturbed grasslands of the Carrizo Plain.”
Veesart: The California Valley is degraded, but it’s the last bastion for a number of endangered grassland species that could be pushed over the brink of extinction. “How many ecosystems can humans think we can collapse before our own collapses?”
Q: Won’t the solar plants bring environmental benefits?
Zichella: Yes. They will offset hundreds of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases thatare the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of cars. “There are good features to these projects. We need to have low carbon energy resources.”
Veesart: The fact that the three solar plants will not emit greenhouse gases is fine. But the solar plants are not replacing existing ones that do emit greenhouse gases. They are only adding new generation to meet the state’s insatiable demand for energy.
Q: What about rooftop solar energy — installing solar panels on homes and businesses?
Zichella: Rooftop solar is great, but it would not be enough. Some utility solar plants will be necessary.
Veesart: Distributed solar would go a long way to meeting the state’s energy needs. “We should start there.”
Q: Where do you agree?
Zichella: The solar companies are going to have to take a very serious and coordinated look at the environmental impacts of the plants, particularly concerning wildlife, and offset them. No cutting corners or predetermined outcomes.
Veesart: Society can no longer afford to be cavalier about natural ecosystems. “Our survival is connected to the kangaroo rat and the blunt-nosed leopard lizard. You can’t just continue collapsing ecosystems and expect there to be no consequences.”