A novel but somewhat contentious agreement announced Wednesday is designed to allow four utility-scale solar farms to be built in eastern Kern County by ending grazing on a separate swath of federal property measuring 215,000 acres.
The arrangement is intended to make up for negative impacts Los Angeles-based Avantus' photovoltaic solar and battery installations could have on ecologically sensitive habitat in the vicinity of Boron and Mojave.
People involved say the Onyx Conservation Project represents a unique model in that other so-called mitigation projects tend to resemble checkboards that don't protect wide, uninterrupted expanses from the grazing's trampling and increased competition for forage.
Avantus, formerly 8minute Solar Energy, said the arrangement is superior from other conservation measures in the way it sets aside a contiguous space the size of seven San Franciscos for space and forage free of disruption for animals such as the desert tortoise, Mohave ground squirrel and California condor. The deal will also protect more than 80,000 acres of western Joshua tree habitat.
Members of Kern County's ranching community are skeptical. Leery of conservation agreements in general, they said the large amount of pasture made permanently off limits by the mitigation project will increase competition, and costs, for the ever-smaller amount of grazing land still available.
Aside from its commercial value, cattle grazing can limit the spread of invasive grass species and control low-lying plants that can fuel wildfires. But a state official familiar with the Avantus project said those environmental benefits largely do not apply in the desert lands of eastern Kern.
Director Lorelei Oviatt of the Kern County Planning and Natural Resources Department said the situation illustrates the difficulty of aligning protection of sensitive species with the county's generations-old ranching traditions and, more recently, meeting the state's climate goals through the development of renewable energy resources.
"It's just another example of trying to rebalance all these priorities," she said.
Oviatt noted the county had encouraged the company to seek opportunities ahead of time for mitigating solar projects it planned to develop later, "because solar ... takes lots of land."
"Avantus ... is one of the companies that has built solar in Kern County at the highest standard of quality," Oviatt said. "They are a company that takes the stewardship and the relations with communities as one of their corporate values."
About two years ago, Avantus paid an undisclosed sum to buy federal grazing rights from a joint venture formed by two other Los Angeles companies, CIM Group Inc. and Renewable Resources Group, which had subleased grazing rights to others. The land is located west of Highway 14 between Red Rock Canyon and Highway 178.
Avantus then applied for permission to retire the property's grazing rights permanently in order to compensate for damage its own solar power projects may cause to sensitive habitat in the same general region.
Under an agreement the company has made with the federal Bureau of Land Management and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Avantus is required to spend millions of dollars on restoration and conservation work on the property. That may involve fencing off certain sensitive areas, though much of the land will still be open to the public for recreational uses including hiking and camping.
“In line with our ambitions to be a clean energy major, the Onyx Conservation Project will provide critical habitat preservation and environmental benefits at a scale our industry has never seen before," founder and CEO Tom Buttgenbach said in a news release.
The arrangement is expected to help provide regulatory cover for solar array and battery projects in eastern Kern totaling 16,453 acres, 1,800 megawatts of electricity generation and 1.5 gigawatts of energy storage. One of the installations, the Eland Solar and Storage Center, is under construction, while three others — the Aratina, Bellefield and Kudu solar farms — are scheduled to be built starting early next year.
Glennville rancher Jack Lavers was unfamiliar with the Onyx project but said he opposes such arrangements.
Not only do they drive up competition for other pasture, making it harder to produce a renewable source of protein, he said, but they hurt businesses such as restaurants and tire shops that serve the cattle industry.
"It's a negative impact on all of us," he said.
Western Kern rancher Carl Twisselman II was also critical. Unconvinced conservation agreements have the benefits they purport, he said people in the cattle business take good care of the land.
"Maybe it makes people feel good," Twisselman said, "but I think it's phony."
Julie Vance, Fresno-based regional manager for the state wildlife department, said grazing can help the environment elsewhere but that it's "extremely damaging" in a desert ecosystem because cattle and sheep may, for example, eat flowering plants that are important food for desert tortoises.
Vance pointed out the Onyx project has not been fully approved to serve as mitigation for Avantus' solar projects in the area. She noted the relinquishment of grazing rights is not transferable, meaning the company cannot sell the project's regulatory benefits the way a so-called mitigation bank would.
The project provides better habitat protection than smaller efforts do, she added.
"This is definitely innovation," she said. "We'd like to have more of this, but we'd have to have the right circumstances come together."