Solar power company drops out of plans for Carrizo Plain in eastern San Luis Obispo County

Another company, First Solar, buys the property in Carrizo Plain planned for solar thermal project; Ausra will continue to supply equipment

dsneed@thetribunenews.comNovember 4, 2009 

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO BY DAVID SNEED

A 177-megawatt solar thermal power plant proposed for the Carrizo Plain will not be built.

In a deal announced Wednesday, First Solar purchased the one-square-mile property upon which Ausra Inc. had proposed building its solar thermal plant. Doing so will now allow First Solar to reconfigure its Topaz Solar Farm, a large photovoltaic plant being planned nearby.

“The Topaz Solar Farm remains the same size, 550 megawatts, but the acquisition means one less solar project in the region and provides options for Topaz improvements like wildlife movement corridors and minimized use of Williamson Act land,” said Kathryn Arbeit, First Solar business development director.

The price of the sale was not disclosed. In a press release, Ausra officials said the sale allows them to focus on being suppliers to — rather than developers of — large-scale solar steam generation projects.

The company has contracts to sell solar thermal equipment to projects in Jordan and Australia, said Tom Bertolomei, Ausra’s vice president of business development.

“Our goal is to help our customers deploy cost-effective and dependable solar steam generators to successfully compete in today’s challenging energy market,” he said.

First Solar will not build the solar thermal plant because it’s a photovoltaic company and the technology for solar thermal is very different, Arbeit said. Solar thermal plants use the heat of the sun to generate steam that drives electrical generators. By contrast, photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly to electricity.

An agreement with Pacific Gas and Electric to sell the 177 megawatts the plant would have generated has been canceled. An application to build the plant with the California Energy Commission will also be withdrawn, Arbeit said.

The cancellation of the thermal solar plant means that there are now two solar plants proposed for the Carrizo Plain area. In addition to the 550-megawatt First Solar plant, SunPower plans to build a 250-megawatt solar plant east of the First Solar site.

The cancellation also means that the county will be the sole permitting authority for the two photovoltaic plants that will produce a combined 800 megawatts of power. The Ausra plant would have required an approval from the California Energy Commission, which is the permitting agency for all solar thermal plants greater than 50 megawatts.

Environmental impacts of the projects will also be reduced without the Ausra plant, Arbeit said. While compact, solar thermal plants are much more industrialized than arrays of photovoltaic panels.

They feature taller buildings, produce more noise and use more water. Water has historically been scarce on the Carrizo Plain.

A main advantage of acquiring the Ausra land is that First Solar will be able to build the project without using farmland protected by the Williamson Act. Farmers get substantial tax breaks for keeping their land in agricultural production, and canceling those contracts can be expensive, Arbeit said.

The land will also give First Solar more flexibility in configuring the 4,200 acres of solar arrays in ways that minimize wildlife impacts. San Joaquin kit foxes, a federally listed endangered species, use the property as habitat and migration corridors.

Minimizing wildlife and agricultural impacts will be prime considerations for county planners when deciding whether to permit the project. First Solar plans to get its county permits next year and begin producing power in 2011 with the project fully developed in 2013. SunPower has a similar development schedule.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

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