Clean Power

Published on December 2nd, 2014 | by Jake Richardson


World’s Largest Solar Power Plant Is Now In Operation

December 2nd, 2014 by  

Originally published on Solar Love.

Did you hear about the largest solar power plant in the world and how it is now producing electricity? Did it make the nightly broadcast news?


Probably not, but Solyndra was all over the news media for a while. There’s a blatant lack of coverage for solar success stories, so it wouldn’t be surprising if most people aren’t hearing about them. California’s Topaz project is the largest solar power plant in the world with a 550 MW capacity, and it is now in full operation. It is located in San Luis Obispo County and has 9 million solar panels. Construction began just two years ago.

The electricity produced by the plant will be purchased by Pacific Gas and Electric. The solar panels were manufactured by First Solar and the project was developed by First Solar.

SEIA says about 200 homes in California are powered for each MW of solar power capacity. So, for a 550 MW solar plant, about 110,000 homes could be powered when the sun is shining. First Solar has said this figure could be 160,000 homes in the case of Topaz.

The San Luis Obispo county population is about 276,000. It might turn out that the majority of this population could be powered by a single solar power plant.

Energy storage is a growing field, so it eventually might be that excess electricity generated by solar power could be stored for nighttime use and for overcast days, extending the impact of Topaz even further.

Using the electricity created by this huge solar plant rather than fossil fuels will prevent the generation of about 377,000 tons of CO2 annually. It will also not produce harmful air pollution the way coal power plants do.

About 400 construction jobs were created during the construction phase and up to $400,000 in property taxes each year will be paid by the project owners. That’s a big boost to the local area.

There is far too much negative or misleading press about solar power. If you like solar power and want people to know about this great news, please consider sharing this article.


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Largest Solar Power Plants In The World (CSP & Solar PV)

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About the Author

Hello, I have been writing online for some time, and enjoy the outdoors. If you like, you can follow me on Google Plus.

  • prakhar yadav

    Of course the solar power plants are good source to reduce the pollution and also helpful in providing us happy and healthy life

  • JdH

    Slowly, but surely, we are getting there. Keep plopping these down across the desert!

  • dan mullock

    2.5 billion dollar cost of construction means an annual interest only cost at 6% of $150,000,000. So each of those 110,000 to 160,000 homes powered during the day will have to offset an approximately $100 monthly per home interest cost. the average US household uses 900 kwh per month, mostly in the late afternoon and evening when much of this power will not be available at max capacity or at all. So the real cost per kwh just for interest payments will not be $.11 ($100/900 kwh) but more like double that or $.22 per kwh. This interest only cost will represent one of the highest electrical costs in the US. Only Hawaii has an average cost higher than this. A very expensive and visually ugly project which will burden taxpayers even more.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Pretzel logic….

  • Bob_Wallace

    Ever been in that area? We, who live in California, recognize that area as desert. Our deserts get a bit of rain in the winter and sometimes are covered with blooming plants for a couple of weeks in good years.

    Some of them will green up in the rainy season and then be nothing much but dried grass by April.

    Furthermore, it looks to me as if the solar farm is built, or largely built, on land that was being used as farm land.

    • Alan Dale Brown

      Yes, I’ve been to it about a half-dozen times.

      The wikipedia article specifies it as grassland.

      • Bob_Wallace

        One definition of desert is less than 50 mm of annual rainfall.

        Carrizo Plains receives about 230 mm per year. So if you want Carrizo Plains to be called non-desert, that’s fine.

        Carrizo is a great place for solar and as long as the solar farms are build on already disturbed lands, such as failed farms and housing developments, I’ve got no problems with it.


  • Jerry Stout

    You can complain all you want about the destruction of habitat but compare this to a similar area of tar sands, strip mines or mountain top removal and then factor in the fact that this will continue to produce power forever versus a one time shot for each of the others.

  • Alan Dale Brown

    They’re different technologies; solar thermal and photovoltaic are completely different. Photovoltaic is proving to be more more economical.

    • parmijo

      Sure they are different, but they are just different flavors of solar. Like a BWR (boiling water reactor) vs a PWR (pressurized water reactor). Both BWR and PWR are nuclear reactors. Solar thermal was supposed to be an advancement on Photovoltaic. The jury is still out on that. Photovoltaic is more economical thanks to the Chinese and their low priced panels. But the economics does not improve their capacity factor. Both have capacity factors far below nuclear or gas or coal due to the very nature of collecting diffuse, climate dependent (variable) energy. The input (solar) is the same for both.

      • Bob_Wallace

        CF is simply one factor in establishing price.

        Time to put those CF issues to bed. They don’t drive us to nuclear because nuclear costs too damn much.


    Any living creature with feathers flying by will be burned to that right?

    • Alan Dale Brown

      No, these are PV solar panels, not solar thermal. No way to fry anything.

    • MorinMoss

      Not much risk of that happening with Solar PV, as in PHOTO-VOLTAIC.
      By the way, Phase 1 of this project has been generating electricity for the grid since Feb 2013, slightly over 1,000 GW-hr total to date. Now that the larger Phase 2 is online, the power produced will increase considerably.
      I imagine we would have heard about the dead birds by now.

  • obiei

    Desert or not i hate wasting land, the panels could easily be integrated in the home, building construction, bridges roads…..just dont waste land, this land was desert, but i have seen many good land wasted, i have seen artistic windmills integrated in the building structure, be creative.

    • Bob_Wallace

      It’s about cost. Solar is still working out its efficiencies and for solar to be competitive at the market level it can’t afford higher costs.

      That means that the panels have to go where the sunshine is the best (inland, which in the SW is all desert). The panels have to be installed with as much repetition and little labor as possible. Can’t afford to have crews climbing ladders, installing a few panels, climbing down and up on another roof a few blocks over.

      As for artistic windmills. They’re art. I’ve yet seen one that even started to produce electricity at a competitive price.

      If aesthetics is a large driver for you why not look at some mountains that have had their tops removed. Or some open pit coal mines. Or the mess being created in Canada and Africa to bring oil to market.

    • Alan Dale Brown

      The issue is that labor and permitting is now over 50% of the cost of a home solar system; panels are not the main cost anymore, surprising enough. A major installation requires significantly less design, less paperwork, less labor per kilowatt produced. (It’s possible that the desert is a little better, but solar power is fairly efficient in central and southern California, so long as you’re not fogged in all of the time.) The main economic advantage of rooftops is that money does not have to be spent on the land.

  • Offgridman

    Are those panels in the foreground of the picture actually triangular in shape. Or is it just a distortion of the photo?

    • Dominik Waechter

      Where do you see any panels. that are the mounting poles 🙂

      • Offgridman

        Must be my old man eyes, but looks like something triangular on top of those poles, guess that’s what is going to hold the panels?

        • Dominik Waechter

          So it is 🙂

          • Offgridman

            Thanks, hadn’t seen anything like that before, have a good night. 🙂

        • Bob_Wallace

          Yep. Looks like brackets welded on the top of metal posts.

          Pretty simple installation. Just push them in.

          • Offgridman

            Thanks, no matter how much I zoomed in just looked like a triangular plate setting on top, well, live and learn.
            And I am with you, compared to messes seem removing, processing, and using fossil fuels these rows of PV, heliostats, or turbines are downright beautiful, once we have enough my grandkids can get creative with the implementation.

  • Joseph Dubeau

    toot, toot, toot, the horn for California. toot toot.

  • rlhailssrpe

    The article is a puff piece, lacking hard numbers so I will provide some context. I engineered a score of nukes and two score fossil fueled plants. The big number is levelized cost. My cheapest was $0.17/KWHr from a nuke. My guess (I do not know) is that this project will be over $1.00/KWHr, apples to apples. The next big number is capacity factor, a major contributor to cost. In my career, if you missed this number, or were late, you paid liquidated damages.

    This is a modest power producer, mid-range. It generated 400 construction jobs (no mention of factory jobs, were they in the US?) A big nuke employed 6,000 – 7,000 on site hardhats, with many multiples in factories.

    My technical questions center on degeneration modes, dust burdens, focusing errors, wind damage and long term degradation of the solar – electric conversion. These operational issues take time to determine; they are site specific and maintenance sensitive, e.g can you replace panels on line and what system and personnel considerations are needed? From a financial viewpoint, how does this concept compete with $40b crude? (Jim Cramer’s recent projection range.) With natural gas in the $4/MBTU range, there will be dark clouds over solar generation.

    The purpose of a demonstration plant is to define the answers to the above questions, as well as staffing talents and associated costs. We will know in a year or so. In the mean time, we need green shaded types to expose and destroy the fluff numbers. People play with numbers.

    • Bob_Wallace

      We’re seeing PPAs signed for PV solar in similar locations for $0.05/kWh. We can tease the subsides out and end up under $0.07/kWh. That’s a price that includes maintenance, labor, ancillary costs and owner profit. It’s LCOE plus.

      Compare that to your $0.17/kWh for your cheapest nuke.

      With $40b crude? EVs running on $0.12/kWh are the equivalent of a 50 MPG ICEV running on $1.80 gasoline. I don’t know an easy way to convert $40b to $/gallon, perhaps you do.

      I don’t think we can count of $4/MBTU NG. Once we start selling to Europe our NG prices are likely to pop up to world levels.

      See any fluff in my numbers?

    • Will E

      Eon biggest utility company in Europe abandones nukes coal and gas and go clean,
      Solar and Wind to make a profit. EnBW, RWE, Vattenfall will follow. breaking news sunday 30 november 2014.

      • Doug Cutler

        Don’t think that’s entirely true. More like they are bifurcating into two separate entities, one for the old fossil fuel side while the Eon name itself takes on the glory of the new.

        Still, it would seem the old is slowing yielding to the new but some investors could still be trying to have it both ways during a transitional phase.

    • Steve N

      Play with numbers. We all like to play with numbers.
      How about 100 years at $10,000,000 a year to take care of the waste. That’s if we are lucky. Bonus Billion. How about not having catastrophic insurance. Let’s face it Japan is going to fork over billions for their small little accident. I am sure the power company is going to take care of that bill.
      Yep, let’s play with numbers.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Fukushima. Over $100 billion (both the power company and government have fessed up to that) and already handed over to taxpayers for their enjoyment.

      • rlhailssrpe

        Your point is well taken; people do play with numbers, and make mistakes. There are too many responses to my comment, my time is very limited, but I owe you a correction. I typed a number wrong, transposed a digit which any professional would have instantly picked up. My “$0.17/KWHr from a nuke” should have read, “$0.017/KWHr from a nuke”. If brought to today’s dollar, this would be about $0.035/KWHr, which is much less, for base loaded generation that other quoted numbers. (I question whether dispatchable discounts, a huge penalty to Solar generation, was considered.)

        People indeed play with numbers. On an apples to apples comparison, solar is very expensive relative to other technologies.

        I engineered nine plants similar to Fukushima. They work. The disaster was caused by a classic management failure. They ignored expert analysis which showed the design flood basis was outdated, and not safe. A modest investment could have made the entire plant safe. And their response to the accident was inept. If the prevailing winds were reversed, it is reasonable to consider whether large parts of Japan would have to be evacuated, for millions of years. From the numbers.

        Society is not well served by incompetent people in charge of energy, who are not candid. We face an epic decision: Do we convert a technology which can annihilate us all, for peaceful purposes, or do we fore go a technology which may lead to dangerous irreversible changes to the climate, or do we raise the cost of energy, with disastrous economic consequences.

        I vote for honest and competent management and accept the downside risk of cheap life sustaining energy.

        I am late for work.

  • Marion Meads

    You still have to deal with peak demand, when the AC or drier are on and charging EV at 6.6 kW.

    • Yes, but most power plants are not peaking plants. Nor do they need to be. Among non-renewable power plants only diesel engines and open-cycle gas turbines make good peakers, and among renewables only reservoir-backed hydroelectric plants make good peakers. If you build storage you can cover daily peaks using banked energy from inflexible (coal, nuclear) or intermittent (wind, solar) plants. Some of this storage can be had “for free” just by reducing water flows through existing reservoir-backed hydroelectric plants when wind or solar resources are producing a lot of electricity, and using the saved water later when the sun sets or the air calms.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Batteries are starting to replace gas peakers. And Germany is running plants on biogas, something we could do.

    • JamesWimberley

      Irrelevant. The “powering x homes” metric is clearly about averages. You’ve had your warhol (unit of fame: = 15 minutes).

    • Alan Dale Brown

      A better way to understand what this plant does is provide some of the power for a million or more homes, rather than “powering” 160,000 homes. Particularly in California, where sunshine is consistently available in the summertime when people are using a/c, solar is very useful in helping with the peak demand. Solar isn’t at a place we’re it can displace all other sources, but it can be an economically viable way to support this peak demand.

      Since EVs have their own electricity storage, they’re well-suited for solar power … if they are somewhere where they can be plugged in during the middle of the day.

      By the way, the best technology for using solar power to dry clothes is a clothesline. 🙂

  • right_wing_bob

    I like solar and the jobs created are a good thing. I looked up the expected growth in demand and found someone expecting +1% growth. Since EIA stated that September generation was about 340,000 thousand MW hours our growth for next years September will be about 3.4 Million MW Hours. If this thing gets 25% utilization it can produce about 100,000 MW hours next September. So all we have to do is build 34 more of these largest ever solar plants by next year and we can keep up with demand increase. Think of all the jobs. Of course we could do the same thing with about five 1GW nuclear plants but, politics.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Sorry, RW. Can’t build five 1 GW nuclear plants in a year. Try a decade.

      And are you willing to endure a very large increase in your electric bill?

    • Larry

      And lets put the nuclear waste repository for the spent fuel rods in YOUR back yard

  • dude1394

    Hmmm.. You sorta have to wonder if increased shade in the desert wouldn’t support wildlife instead of blocking it. If the panels make the covered ground even more dry, then that would be interesting.

    • Kevin McKinney

      “If the panels make the covered ground even more dry, then that would be interesting.”

      Or more moist, by suppressing evaporation rates?

      • Calamity_Jean

        Or more moist, by having washwater dripping off them?

  • dude1394

    “About 400 construction jobs were created during the construction phase and up to $400,000 in property taxes each year will be paid by the project owners. That’s a big boost to the local area.”

    But how many pod those construction jobs are permanent. This seems to be the new benchmark when evaluating jobs. 5?, 10?

    • Dragon

      No construction job of any type is permanent unless you want to pay people to continually demolish a structure so you can reconstruct it again.

      I’m sure the project created some permanent maintenance, repair, and inspection jobs, however.

      • Offgridman

        Monitoring and implementing the power flow also, a video on another big farm interviewed a high tension linesman that worked permanently on site taking care of that aspect, and discussed the people that were actually miles away involved in overseeing the feed in to the grid through their computers. There’s a lot more involved in seeing that these systems work and work right than some people realize. What’s good also is that these are half way decent paying jobs that don’t just involve carrying a bucket and squeegee around to keep the panels clean.

  • Bob_Wallace

    Ivanpah is under performing. Some of that is due to weather as is stated in the GMT report you link. But you fail to report that fact. Some of the under performance may be the sort of ‘getting started’ tuning needed for most large systems. Nuclear plants have often taken months before they are running up to specs. We won’t know for a while longer whether Ivanpah has a major design flaw or not.

    Then when you then go on to criticize solar for not producing their “stated capacity” you pretty much tell us you’re a troll. Of course solar panels do not produce at nameplate and you know exactly why.

    Now, go spread your FUD somewhere else.

    • dude1394

      Underperforming is underperforming dude. 40% underperforming is fraud.

      • Bob_Wallace


        Before you wrote that comment you knew that part of the problem was a less than usual amount of sunshine. But you charge fraud rather than waiting to see if 1) the system can be tuned to be more productive or 2) some indication that the owners mislead lenders.

      • Neptune

        They planned to reach optimal generation by 2018, not in the first year..

      • Larry

        “There are none so blind as those who will not see”

    • parmijo

      There is no claim from Ivanpah that it is underperforming because of a need for an extended ramp up period. The ramp up excuse is simply a delay tactic. No one will say when the “ramp up” period ends. If a contractor builds a house that has a leaky roof, is a reasonable excuse “I wasn’t expecting there to be so much bad weather….”. Weather is no excuse for any power plant. Its an inherent weakness in any power generation reliant on weather. That is why we don’t have wind powered aircraft carriers or solar powered submarines. We switched to nuclear long time ago. It is also why we use RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generators, i.e. nuclear) in our long range space missions like Viking which launched in 1977 and are still going strong today. Those RTGs are still generating power 37 years after launch and they do it 24×7 365 days a year. Look what happened to the Europeans with their Rosetta/Philae spacecraft that relied on solar. Total bust cause they hit shade (who would think space could get dark). If they used nuclear (RTG) they would still be operating. Ivanpah will never produce anywhere near its target. Every solar plant has targets that are below stated capacity. Would you buy a truck rated at 300 horsepower if it produced just 100hp 30% of the time and often produced ZERO horsepower? Of course not.

      • Bob_Wallace

        You posted more of your crap right after someone told you that there was no expectation to be up to full performance until 2018.

  • The article makes a good point that despite being the largest solar power plant in the world AND happening right in the middle of California not far from several large cities, the major media has completely ignored this story.

    • Michael G

      I’ve been to San Luis Obispo many times. It is decidedly NOT near major cities. It is a 2 hour drive to the barest edge of anything like a city. It does get very hot inland a few miles from the coast so AC gets used a lot and there are plenty of small farming communities that can benefit.

  • Marion Meads

    Some reality check here. This is solar, the 1 MW capacity do not translate directly into supporting 200 homes!

    Average consumption of typical home 10,837 kWh/year (low of 6,367 kWh/yr for Maine, and highest 15,046 kWh/yr for Louisiana)

    A 1 kW peak capacity solar panel produces on the average US location all States. 1,600 kWh per year. So when it comes to solar panels, you would need 6.77 kW peak capacity per household. So 1 MW peak capacity translates into just 148 households, not 200.

    • Matt

      A great example of why I hate when they use # of homes. 6367-15046 that is over a factor of 2. If I use the 6367 value then I only need 4kW peak, so get about 250 homes per MW. If I use homes in another country it is even higher, which is to say it is a worthless number to use.

    • S.Nkm

      The *average* consumption of a typical home is almost 11MWh/y!? What a freaking waste.

    • th210

      1,600 kWh per year is assuming ~18% capacity factor. While that may be the average across all PV modules nationwide, the First Solar panels in the CA desert are operating closer to 30% or ~2,600 kWh per year

      • Marion Meads

        It has to do with average sunshine hours and average intensity of solar radiation on a south facing fixed position panel.

        • Will E

          netherlands 1 on 1 KWh installed
          australia 4 on 1 KWh installed
          usa 2 on 1 KWh installed

          • ivyespalier (Randy)

            Solar panels are rated in Watts, units of power. A kWh is a unit of energy.

    • Will E

      We use average 6000 Kwh a year of typical home and that is normal for heating warm water and electricity.
      so change the consumer consumption,

      • ivyespalier (Randy)

        If the water is already warm, why are you heating it? 😉

  • JamesWimberley

    Another lifeless bulldozed field under the panel mounts. This is so unnecessary.

    • jonesey

      It’s in a desert. Not lifeless, but you would have to irrigate like crazy and plant non-native grasses to turn it into the pastoral scene shown above.

      • SMG_VII

        I used to live near there. It’s not a desert at all. It was grassland. There are pronghorn antelope roaming just a few miles south of the plant’s location. It may or may not have been agriculturally useful – I don’t know – but it wasn’t some barren wasteland by any measure. It’s the kind of area where you see wildflowers everywhere after spring rains.

        • Jeremy Friesner

          Is there anything preventing grasses and other plants from recolonizing the area under the panels? (I’d imagine that if growing conditions are favorable, they will reappear unless the owners of the solar farm put a lot of effort into weeding)

    • Michael G

      The picture of the ground below the panels is pretty much what it looked like before the panels went in. I seriously doubt anything was bulldozed. It is not a very “pretty” area in CA, except near the coast.

      • Dominik Waechter

        Please have a look on google street view how it looked there before construction. It is fare away from desert and really a pity to destroy that. I think this could have been built also without destroying the living layer on the ground. But anyway good project, but i hope in the future we are able to build such huge plants without destroying the whole flora and fauna around it.

    • Bob_Wallace

      There’s not enough money in lamb shanks to pay for the water to turn the desert land in the upper picture into pasture. That’s been pointed out.

      What I find interesting is that racking seems to be steel posts driven into the ground. No concrete.

    • Offgridman

      By all of the workers in the picture it was quite obviously taken during construction. Let’s wait a couple of years for the natural sedge to regrow and see if it doesn’t look much the same as before the construction was done..
      By all the livestock in the picture that you posted this was quite obviously taken some time post construction, do you have one of what the site looked like white the setup was being done? Would imagine that it looked quite different.

    • Larmion

      Bulldozing isn’t all that bad actually in dry climates. Abengoa and other solar plant operators found that by heavily compacting the soil in the solar farm, they could cut panel fouling by a considerable degree. That meant far less water was needed for panel cleaning.

      Dense soil cover vegetation would of course be even better to mitigate dust, but that’s hard to achieve in the local climate.

      • JamesWimberley

        “They wreck a desert and they call it sustainable”?

        I couldn’t google a photo of a low-impact solar installation in a dry climate, perhaps because there are few. It’s a common misapprehension that deserts are lifeless – even sand dunes have beetles and lizards. The available photos were of English farms with sheep grazing. Farmers there have done a good job of deflecting the objections that have obstructed wind farms, with grazing, wildflowers (link), and even bees.

        Utility solar projects in the US Southwest are facing an environmental backlash for destructive desert developments. They can’t rent cuddly lambs, but need to get hold of photogenic burrowing owls and Gila monsters, soon.

        • Bob_Wallace

          This appears to be a photo of the project. In it one can see that the area is not one of waving plains of wheat.

          It’s true that there were some things growing here but it looks to me that some of those things were low quality crops.

      • jeffhre

        No, bulldozing is terrible. It leads to years of unchecked erosion in an environment so difficult for local flora that it can only be described as fragile. Sand and dust storms are preferable over native flora and fauna?
        Undisturbed land is best for arid climates, as it takes years (if not decades) to recover from being scraped clean of life by bulldozing.

        • Alan Dale Brown

          This was already disturbed land, by the way: it was on old, low-value farmland.

    • Dragon

      If you put “35°23’N 120°4’W” into google maps, you can see the solar plant. The area around it looks pretty brown. You’ll also notice a whole lot of faint dirt roads around rectangles of land in various colors that were obviously cleared for farming or other purposes. The amount of land the solar plant uses is tiny compared to the other land humans have cleared for unnatural uses in the area. Check out the huge swaths of farmland to the northeast.

    • Lol, what do you think it was before the panel mounts were there?

    • Alan Dale Brown

      If you actually do some research, you’d find that this had be “low productivity argiculture land” – so it’s not desert. Personally, I think it’s much better to use rooftops, but this seems to have less impact than, say, the Ivanpah plant.

      • Bob_Wallace

        ‘you’d find that this had be “low productivity argiculture land” – so it’s not desert.’

        Much of CA agriculture is done on desert land. A huge amount of irrigation and artificial fertilizer is used on low quality soil. Some of the soil in the dryer parts is becoming unusable due to mineral buildup. Farms in the southern part of the San Joaquin Valley are being abandoned.

      • Chris

        As one of the crew who helped build the plant, some of you should check your facts. Our environmental compliance team was by far the largest segment of the construction process. 4,000 acres were covered with solar panels, land that had been farmed for close to 100 years, hardly “pristine native grassland” if you look at the layout of the plant, great care was taken to avoid established habitats and natural drainages. Also 16,000 additional acres were set aside as privately held protected habitat. So, all it all, I’d say it’s an environmentally sustainable project.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Thanks, Chris. Good info.

          Do you happen to know what predictions are for the land underneath the panels over time? Will native plants be allowed to reestablish themselves (as long as they don’t interfere with panel operation)? Or is there some other plan?

    • Doug

      A brownfield site may be a more appropriate choice. Rooftop installations are also easy on the land.

    • crawg

      Ever seen how pretty an open cut coal mine is James? I can tell that image is a whole lot nicer.

    • StephanBib

      Yeah we could have a handsome cooling tower or two and a great nuclear power plant….or “clean coal”. Clean coal, it’s like saying “Good Nazi”

    • Eric Offerman

      Yes, so unnecessary. Any idea where the energy would come from otherwise? Probably coal, which involves strip mining an entire mountain face to get at. And when you burn it, you release massive amounts of co2, mercury, sulfur, VOC’s, and radiation, all of which kill far far more animals (wild animals, mind you) than however many are killed (none I’m sure) or disrupted by this solar array. Just so you and I can sit on our computers and type meaningless gabber.

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