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Big plans for Morro Bay 

A large alt-energy campus is proposed on the power plant site

click to enlarge GRAPHIC FROM WESTPAC ENERGY PAMPHLET:  A NEW HOPE This rendering depicts the massive “reimagination” of the city proposed for the site of the Morro Bay power plant. - GRAPHIC FROM WESTPAC ENERGY PAMPHLET
  • GRAPHIC FROM WESTPAC ENERGY PAMPHLET
  • GRAPHIC FROM WESTPAC ENERGY PAMPHLET: A NEW HOPE This rendering depicts the massive “reimagination” of the city proposed for the site of the Morro Bay power plant.

A new private college campus dedicated to alternative energy studies would be built on the site of Morro Bay’s power plant under a major “reimagination” of the area that has been presented privately to city officials in recent weeks.

Meeting with city council members and the mayor individually, a team led by officials with San Luis Obispo-based WestPac Energy Group sketched out a wholesale new vision for the area.

WestPac Energy Group President Tom Fee declined to comment on the plan when contacted by New Times. But, according to a copy of a pamphlet provided to city officials and obtained by New Times, the plan calls for:

• A new postgraduate college campus, complete with student union, research facilities, administrative offices, and a water-science area. It would eventually have some 2,000 students and some 1,000 employees.

• A new city hall.

• A new municipal pool.

• A sporting club or fitness area.

• A new boatyard.

• A new marina.

• A new hotel.

• A convention center.

• Retail offices and public parking.

• A desalination plant.

All of this and many additional tourist-friendly amenities such as a “pedestrian tree walk” and kayak beach would be built in addition to the power plant, which under the plan would continue to operate as a natural gas-burning “peaker” plant (one that runs only when demand is at peak periods). The power plant’s stacks would also remain.

In other words, the plan would envision a way for the plant to continue operating beyond its expected lifecycle, which without new regulatory approval has been expected to end in 2015 when it would no longer be allowed to use ocean water for cooling. Court decisions in 2004 and 2007 effectively banned the practice.

In response to requests for more information by a planning commissioner, Fee said his company has “no affiliation to” the WestPac Development Corporation that has built and promoted several development projects in San Luis Obispo or any others that share the name.

Despite the assertion, the companies appear to have numerous ties. For one thing, when a New Times writer called Fee, the office phone had been forwarded to a cell phone of Kari Hamilton, an accountant for WestPac Investments, which is affiliated with Westpac Development Corp. Asked about the connection, Hamilton repeated that there is “no affiliation” between the companies but allowed that Fee formerly worked for WestPac Development. She also said a former partner in the energy group did work with the other WestPac companies.

The pamphlet promises that “ … the outdated plant will be the shell for advanced systems to harness the potentials of wind, tidal, solar and geothermal energies” not only for the campus’ own uses but to sell elsewhere.

It promises the center will “heal the sensitive coastal environments to give new life to marine and upland ecosystems …” and boasts of an influx of “intellectual capital and knowledge workers …”

Combined, the massive vision has left city officials excited but wondering how realistic it is.

 “They threw in everything and the kitchen sink,” Morro Bay Mayor Janice Peters said of the presentation, which included a tour of the plant.

She alternatively described the idea as “interesting,” “wonderful,” and “exciting,” but cautioned that it is a long way from becoming reality.

“Right now we have to answer a lot of very practical questions but I think the concept is certainly a very exciting one.”

She said she’s been told the plant could continue operating if it installed equipment that doesn’t require ocean-water cooling. Ultimately, extension of the plant would be a matter for the California Energy Commission to decide.

To help people grasp the idea, the pamphlet left with city officials offers examples of several other independent research campuses, including the Salk Institute in La Jolla.

The development would extend into land owned by plant owner Dynegy including areas now dominated by large holding tanks, which would be removed.

“It is a given,” the document states, that all of the buildings planned for the area “will be high-performing green buildings.” The curriculum would include studies of wind, geothermal, algae biodiesel, kinetic wave energy, tidal energy, solar energy, desalination, and various marine ecosystem and habitat studies.

To Peters, the largest stumbling blocks are financing for the ambitious plan and going through the environmental approval process.

“My sum up,” Peters said, “it’s a really interesting concept and if all the financial and economic ducks could get in the same row, it would be really interesting to pursue.”

The idea may be just the most far along among many imagined reuses for the power plant land. A recent citizen report imagined other potential uses ranging from a large aquarium to marinas to boat haul-outs to an art museum.

Although plant owner Dynegy’s name adorns the pamphlet provided officials and the presentation included a tour of the plant, a company spokeswoman said she could not immediately respond to questions about the plans.

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at phowe@newtimesslo.com.

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