Solar goes under review



Two large-scale solar projects proposed in the Carrizo Plains are officially in the environmental review process. The Draft Environmental Impact Report for First Solar’s proposed 550-megawatt solar power plant is now out for public comment.

Much of the initial environmental findings are no surprise. Given the size of First Solar’s Topaz Solar Farm, roughly six square miles, and the sensitive habitats in the Carrizo Plains, the project carries a hefty plate of unavoidable environmental impacts.

The draft report includes a number of preferred alternatives that would scale back the project’s impacts. At the top of the preferred list is a smaller project, but one that would produce 150 megawatts less than First Solar is hoping for.

Two preferred alternatives are listed in the draft, both of which would shrink the project size to avoid impacts to biological resources and protected agricultural lands. But both alternatives outline a project capable of producing only 400 megawatts.

First Solar spokesman Alan Bernheimer said the company was still reviewing the document, but was so far happy with the findings. He pointed to one finding that determined impacts to biological resources could be reduced after the implementation of 39 mitigation measures.

“I think we have a lot of flexibility because of our acquisition of the Ausra project,” he said. First Solar purchased the land and rights from Ausra last November. “And that gives us a lot of land to provide the county with two different alternatives to look at.”

Bernheimer said the preferred, smaller project alternative outlined in the environmental report would reduce economic benefits to the county.

First Solar will also soon begin an Environmental Impact Study review process through the Department of Energy. The company has applied for a federal loan guarantee, which requires a federal review on top of the local EIR. Bernheimer couldn’t say how much money would come from the loan, but said it would provide the company with low-interest capital to begin construction. SunPower has also applied for the loan and is under federal review.

Several community workshops on First Solar’s project have been scheduled throughout the county, including a First Solar presentation on Nov. 4 at Embassy Suites in San Luis Obispo, a county meeting at the Carissa Plains Heritage Association Community Center, and a meeting with the Department of Energy on Nov. 16, Bernheimer said.

SLO County planning commissioners are scheduled to hold the first public hearing on SunPower’s project Dec. 9.

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