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Solar project getting cloudy 

PG&E is pulling back on its contract with solar-energy producer Ausra, but no one will say why or what it means for the first of three proposed solar projects in the Carrizo Plain.

The energy utility contracted with Ausra as part of a state mandate to amp up the renewable portion of its energy to 20 percent by 2010. Ausra’s 177-megawatt project, the Carrizo Energy Solar Farm, is farthest along in the planning process locally and undergoing hearings with the California Energy Commission.

PG&E withdrew its power purchase agreement with Ausra from the California Public Utilities Commission early last month. Specifically, PG&E asked the commission to withdraw advice letters that were part of the 20-year purchase agreement. What does that mean? For now, no one seems willing to say. Neither PG&E nor Ausra representatives would comment on what the implications are for the project.

Jennifer Serwer, a spokeswoman for PG&E, said there was still a power purchase agreement with Ausra and it was only the advice letters that were withdrawn. Advice letters are filed with the Public Utilities Commission as part of the purchase agreement.

Ausra Vice President of Communications Katherine Potter gave much the same response. She said PG&E’s action was “procedural” and Ausra is continuing with its project in Carrizo, but confidentiality agreements between Ausra and PG&E prevented her from commenting on the implications for the project.

Both Serwer and Potter called the withdrawal procedural, but would again not say what it meant for the agreement between the two companies.

Even as Ausra and other companies are seeking to put more renewable energy into the grid, a recently proposed Assembly bill could add further requirements for utility companies. Assembly Bill 64 would require utility companies to have 33 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Most controversially, the bill would create a new state agency that would approve future energy projects. Currently, local officials handle low-impact projects like solar farms. As written, AB 64 could remove local jurisdiction, which has some worried.

After the bill was introduced several state employees told New Times the language about a new state agency would likely be the first thing removed. As of the latest amendment, however, there were no changes to the most debated portions of AB 64.

Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, who represents SLO County, was a co-author but had his name removed on March 18. Spokeswoman Christine Robertson said Blakeslee removed his name because amendments he wanted were not made. Robertson could not be reached for further comment on the specific amendments.

Ausra is the smallest of three proposed projects in the Carrizo Plain. SunPower and OptiSolar have larger solar projects planned, although those projects have yet to begin a formal approval process. The largest obstacle to Ausra and all of the projects are environmental concerns regarding the amount of land that would be covered, particularly because of the potential impact on endangered kit fox populations.

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