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Staring into the sun (power) 

San Luis Obispo County planning commissioners on Dec. 9 set the stage for what will likely be an environmental throw down over the Carrizo Plains.

By Jan. 27, commissioners should be kicking off the first official hearings for SunPower’s 250 megawatt solar voltaic project, the first of two projects proposed for the sun-drenched California Valley, which also serves as habitat to a number of listed species.

It was a sort of public unveiling for SunPower’s project as planning officials outlined the Draft Environmental Impact Report and the alternative designs that could lessen environmental impacts. County officials are eyeing a smaller project with less wattage, but SunPower is pushing for the full 250-megawatt output. Company officials made some tweaks to the design and believe they’ve devised a project that makes both sides happy.

John McKenzie, a county planner and project manager for the SunPower environmental report, told New Times the company’s alternative is “comparable” to the county’s preferred project and hinted that county officials could probably get on board with such a recommendation.

But people who spoke at the Dec. 9 meeting see things differently. Harping on the environmental devastation of such a large project, about 10 people said species in the area won’t be able to withstand the loss of habitat and criticized the environmental report as inadequate.

“Apparently, if you have solar in your name, that pauses rational thought and rational analysis,” said Pat Veesart, a former planning commissioner.

SunPower officials touted the project’s ability to curb greenhouse gas emissions, meet a state mandate that 33percent of California’s energy needs come from renewable sources, and generate about 300 jobs during theconstruction phase.

The company is gearing up to begin building, partnering with NRG Solar, a subsidiary of energy giant NRG Energy, which pumped in a $450 million investment. SunPower is also pursuing a federal loan guarantee funded by the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

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