Almost always developers chose sites because there’s a willing seller in the vicinity of existing transmission lines, experts say.
Transmission is the biggest reason for the holdup of a massive project that energy planners, agriculture interests and environmentalists agree is perfectly situated — the Westlands Solar Park in remote Kings and Fresno counties. It’s planned for 47 square miles of farmland fallowed because of high levels selenium in the soil.
Developers say the project ultimately could provide 2.7 gigawatts of electricity — enough for 2.7 million homes. But the wait for approval from the California Independent System Operator to tap into transmission lines for a large project proved too long so they got out. For now.
‘‘We realized it would be a seven-to-10 year process,’’ said Joshua Martin, the solar company’s chief financial officer. ‘‘We could easily have spent $7 million in fees to stay in line, but it doesn’t make good business sense. It’s a messy market right now and things need to calm down.’’
Ten years might be wishful thinking. An email the ISO sent to stakeholders on Jan. 18 said that it could be 12 years or longer before the needed upgrades in transmission infrastructure could be complete for solar projects currently waiting for transmission hookups in the Fresno area.
Westlands Solar Park is betting that environmental obstacles and connection costs will force many of the projects in the pipeline statewide to be abandoned. But what they’re hoping in the meantime is that state regulators eventually will direct solar development away from prime farmland.
Next month the California Energy Commission is set to make a move in that direction with adoption of a report that will recommend a coordinated approach placing solar in ‘‘zones with minimal environmental or habitat value,’’ near existing or planned electric system infrastructure. The agency would also collaborate with the Department of Conservation to identify areas of the state with marginal land.
Martin says the move likely is too late to help the projects that are stalled and in danger of missing out on federal tax incentives that expire in 2016.
‘‘Someone needs to take a role and say what lines should be built and which aren’t in the state’s best interest,’’ said Martin. ‘‘So far we have been underwhelmed.’’
Reach Tracie Cone on Twitter: www.Twitter.com/TConeAP