Audubon California Helps Improve Apple’s Solar Farm

Sure, green energy is great—but not when it’s plopped in the middle of pristine habitat.

On a Tuesday in February, Apple CEO Tim Cook took to a stage in San Francisco to unveil a venture he dubbed the company’s "biggest and boldest project ever." No, he wasn’t referring to the Apple Watch—he was talking about a new solar farm large enough to power the company’s entire California operation.

It sounds promising, but there was one problem: The proposed 2,120 acre farm was to be situated right in the middle of pristine wildlife and a perennial stream called Cottonwood Creek, an important breeding habitat for the threatened California red-legged frog and home to other rare species. The location, on part of the 72,000-acre Jack Ranch (in southern Monterey County) was a few hours south of Apple’s Cupertino headquarters.

By the time Cook made his announcement, the project, developed by the First Solar Corporation, had already been in the works for several years, slowly worming its way through the county approval process. In fact, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors greenlit the project that same day in February. Simultaneously, a coalition of environmental groups, including Audubon California, Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, California Native Plant Society, the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Sierra Club, were voicing their concerns. After all, how helpful is green energy if it puts critical habitat for birds and other wildlife at risk now?

Of chief concern to Garry George, renewable energy director at Audubon California, was the impact the project would have on Golden Eagles. A 2013 study found at least 20 eagle nests within a 10-mile radius of project. One of those was on the site itself, and another three were within less than three quarters of a mile from it—well within the 1-2 mile radius in which eagles typically forage.

“There is no reason why these lands that are so rich for wildlife have to be developed for large-scale energy, even renewable energy, when other sites are available,” George says.

Last Friday that environmental coalition was able to claim a few key victories. Under the agreement—made with support from the governor’s office, who First Solar called in to help mediate a resolution—there is now a buffer between the solar farm and Cottonwood Creek. First Solar also agreed to limit the use of potentially toxic dust-control measures, and to ban rodenticides and lead ammunition on the property.

To protect the eagles, the county will be monitoring the on-site nest, and the project will be delayed or scaled back again if any activity is detected there. To help mitigate the impact on eagles with nearby nests, the deal includes a conservation easement on 1,070 additional acres of Jack Ranch. First Solar also agreed to give $10.5 million to an independent land trust for the purposes of conserving the habitat of eagles and other species that could be disturbed by the project, like the red-legged frog, San Joaquin kit fox, and Burrowing Owl.

George is satisfied with the settlement, but after years of negotiations, including time spent preparing to take the case to court if needed, he’s looking for a better way forward to get the renewable energy we need and also protect our focal species of birds. Along with the others in the coalition and the governor’s office, Audubon California is identifying criteria and locations that might be suitable for solar farms. This includes space in the desert and Central Valley that would work well as solar locations, but don’t house as many rare and sensitive species. They expect to complete the stakeholder process by the end of the year.