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SLO solar slow going 

Ausra, a company out of Palo Alto, backed by the high tech and riches of Silicon Valley, unveiled its plan for a $500 million solar thermal plant in Carrizo Plain last November. Spokesmen laid out a one-year timetable for a groundbreaking early in 2009.

But the venture is already running four months late as it negotiates for a California Energy Commission permit. It has encountered a stiff challenge from the state Department of Fish and Game which could delay it further, and it may even face a death sentence from federal agencies.

In January the Energy Commission flagged the endangered San Joaquin kit fox as a major biological issue for the project. Other concerns are potential glare for motorists on Highway 58 and the danger of heavy truck traffic on the curvy, two-lane thoroughfare during three years of construction.

Then in March the California Dept. of Fish and Game weighed in with a 13-page document pointing out that the Carrizo Plain “supports one of the highest concentrations of special status species in California.” DF&G said that Ausra’s biological surveys were incomplete, the cumulative impact of two or three or more solar facilities was not addressed, and that the project requires buffer areas for kit fox, pronghorn antelope, and tule elk. Finally, it added 10 other species “of special interest” so far ignored.

As a result Ausra has agreed to conduct further studies and has made changes in its proposal, changes which will be formally submitted in June. One will rotate the lines of reflectors from east-west to north-south to minimize glare. Another places construction of mirror assemblies on site instead of in Las Vegas from where they were to be trucked ready-to-shine. Less truck traffic, says the company.

Carrizo sources report that the company has also taken options on more property to the south and east of its original site. The new land could be used for buffer or wildlife mitigation.

Design changes and several delays in communication have extended the 12-month review process by four months, CEC Manager Mary Dyas reported in April.

Ausra project director Perry Fontana insists he is unperturbed. “We thought it was appropriate to respond to concerns and let the schedule slip,” he acknowledged last week as part of a “no problem” response. “It’s part of the process. We continue refining our design as we listen to all the stakeholders.”

But one potentially disastrous scenario for the company was floated by CEC’s Dyas in her April status report.

Ausra has applied to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit for waste water under the Clean Water Act, but the arid Carrizo may not fall within the Corps’ domain.

“If this drainage is not subject to the Corps’ jurisdiction, the applicant will be forced to consult directly with U.S. Fish & Wildlife,” Dyas wrote, adding that Fish & Wildlife, generally considered more environmentally sensitive than the Corps, would likely require creation of a Habitat Conservation Plan. Such a plan could take from two to four years. “The applicant has stated that such a delay would make the project infeasible,” she noted.

Fontana would not say whether Ausra would actually walk away from its 177 megawatt investment in such an event. He understandably didn’t want to say much of anything about it.

“I don’t want to argue with staff but I don’t think that’s what we’ve stated,” he said. “We haven’t dealt with it.” No date has been set for a Corps decision.

Watching Ausra’s high wire wobbles with interest are OptiSolar of Hayward which has a 550 MW plan adjacent to Ausra, and SunPower, a subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor. Further, two still unidentified solar firms have also reserved space on the Cal ISO power grid to generate from SLO County.

Utilities must produce 20% of their power from renewable sources by 2010.

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