Top 10 stories of 2009: Solar plans cast plains in a new light

Next year will be a crucial one for two large-scale commercial solar projects proposed north of the Carrizo Plain National Monument in the southeast corner of San Luis Obispo County.

The year will be spent completing environmental impact reports on the projects and getting the county permits necessary to begin construction.

Officials with First Solar, a company that plans to build a 550-megawatt photovoltaic plant near the Carrisa Plains Elementary School, say they hope to complete the permitting process by the end of the year.

Officials with SunPower, a firm that plans to build a 250-megawatt photovoltaic plant nearby, say they would like to get their permits by the end of the year, but concede that the process may spill over into 2011.

State officials late this year learned that plans for a third solar plant in the area were being dropped. Ausra had proposed building a 177-megawatt thermal solar plant near the First Solar plant.

Thermal solar plants are fundamentally different from photovoltaic plants. They use the heat of the sun to boil water and spin steam-powered electrical generators.

While more compact than sprawling photovoltaic plants, thermal solar plants have their own environmental impacts. These include tall buildings, noise and water consumption.

Paul McMillan, utilities manager for SunPower, said withdrawal of the Ausra plant should streamline the permitting process for the remaining two photovoltaic plants. State law requires that the California Energy Commission be the permitting agency for all large-scale thermal solar plants.

However, the cumulative environmental impacts of all three plants had to be assessed simultaneously. Withdrawal of the Ausra plant removes the Energy Commission from the permitting process and leaves permitting solely with the county.

First Solar was able to directly benefit from Ausra’s withdrawal. That company acquired the purchase rights for the one-square-mile of land upon which the thermal solar plant would have been built.

This allowed First Solar to reconfigure the layout of its sprawling solar farm to minimize its affect on wildlife and other environmental concerns. This should increase the likelihood of regulatory approval.

In spite of any streamlining of the process, opposition to the solar farms by environmentalists and some residents of the area is expected to be stiff. They argue that the Carrizo Plain, with its high concentration of rare and endangered plants and animals, is unsuitable for such large-scale solar plants.

Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.

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