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Not everyone finds Carrizo Plain solar plans sunny

Some locals worry about traffic, water, and a 115-foot-tall structure, but solar energy advocates are hopeful

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THE WAY IT WILL BE :  Solar energy startup Ausra created a computer-generated image of what its planned Carrizo Energy Solar Facility will look like when it's completed. Construction could begin in 2009.
  • THE WAY IT WILL BE : Solar energy startup Ausra created a computer-generated image of what its planned Carrizo Energy Solar Facility will look like when it's completed. Construction could begin in 2009.

# Newsweek called it "the world's largest solar installation." The gover-nator bestowed his blessing. The ink was still moist on a 177-megawatt contract with PG&E.

The principal investors, $47 million worth, are heavyweight Silicon Valley venture capitalists whose holdings include Sun Microsystems, Oracle, and Google. One investment partnership boasts a Nobel laureate and Oscar winner named Gore.

During the first week of November, Ausra, a Palo Alto solar energy startup, had the media wired. It targeted SLO County's Carrizo Plain for its $500 million U.S. debut.

But at the rustic Carrisa Plain Community Center the following week (yes, the spelling is different), reaction was mixed.

Ausra served up more than 100 free barbecue dinners--a massive feed by the standards of the remote Carrizo--and Ausra's genial Perry Fontana shook hands and slapped backs like a candidate for ag commissioner.

"We want to listen," Fontana said, looking his listeners in the eye. "We're a new neighbor. We wanted to come down and say, 'Here's what we're up to.' We're not going to make everybody happy, but we want people to say, 'Ausra was transparent with us.'"

Still, much was left unsaid. The Carrizo Energy Solar Facility (CESF) could indeed help dissolve America's carbon footprint, but the cost to the Carrizo is unknown.

"I was a little disappointed in their presentation," said local rancher Jerry Diefenderfer. "I thought it would be a little more technical."

Diefenderfer is a onetime SLO County supervisor, and is a grandson of one of the first settlers on the plain.

"They didn't seem prepared to address the question of accommodations for the workers," he said. "They're bringing in 300 to 400 workers to an area where there are absolutely no services. There's not even a public restroom.

"Most people viewed it as like the old ARCO solar plant," he added, referring to the since-demolished small solar operation run by the petroleum company on an adjacent parcel in the 1980s.

"It wasn't too intrusive, but this is a substantial facility. Solar power is a great idea, but more and more it appears there will be an impact," Diefenderfer said.

Such questions aren't unique to this project. While green technologies such as solar and wind may offer public relations power to energy companies--as well as a path away from global warming for the rest of us--they come with their own issues for would-be neighbors.

 

Who

Ausra was assembled by Silicon Valley executive John O'Donnell. In the spring of 2006, he received a year's income when he bailed from a video-processing chip company he founded. He began scouring the world for green projects where he could sink his capital and his passion. He discovered Australian professor David Mills, who had been tinkering with solar for 30 years and had built a prototype. It was really not solar, as in photovoltaic cells, but solar thermal. It could produce power at less than half the cost of the sophisticated PV cells.

"Whoa," O'Donnell exclaimed, according to a Business Week story. "Mills is either a genius or a madman."

THE WAY IT WAS :  This is part of the ARCO solar facility as seen in 1984. Ausra's solar facility will be built across a gravel road from the site of ARCO's now-demolished photovoltaic plant, but the new facility's unique technology is entirely different.
  • THE WAY IT WAS : This is part of the ARCO solar facility as seen in 1984. Ausra's solar facility will be built across a gravel road from the site of ARCO's now-demolished photovoltaic plant, but the new facility's unique technology is entirely different.

# O'Donnell pitched Mills' technology to his friends in computers. In October last year, they made Mills an offer he couldn't refuse. He moved to the Bay Area and formed Ausra.

The company is just one player in what O'Donnell calls "a gold rush" into renewables. Investments in U.S. green energy almost tripled to $1.45 billion in 2006, according to the Venture Capital Association. Dow Jones and accountants Ernst and Young say the green tide has risen another 70 percent this year.

The avalanche of money has been sparked by several triggers. Federal tax credits, improving technology, and state mandates requiring utilities to buy power from renewable sources are most obvious. California utilities are tasked to purchase 20 percent by 2010. But also looming is the specter of federal climate change legislation, which would tax fossil fuels and make renewables cost-competitive.

 

 

Where

Ausra's Carrizo Energy Solar Farm would be built three miles north of California Valley and 10 miles from Carrizo Plain National Monument. Agricultural zoning is no problem. In SLO County, electrical generation is a permitted use in ag areas. The farm will be located across a gravel road from the site where the small-scale ARCO photovoltaic plant once stood, but its unique technology is entirely different.

 

What

According to Ausra's application, reflecting mirrors will cover virtually the entire square mile: 640 acres. They will reflect solar energy upward into tubing filled with water. The water will boil and convert into high-pressure steam, which will turn a turbine to create electricity. The solar plant will be located almost directly under an existing PG&E transmission line, which it will feed. Seven buildings are planned, the two tallest standing 115 feet high.

The farm will generate enough power for 132,000 homes--that's 15 percent of the maximum output of Morro Bay's natural gas plant and less than 10 percent of Diablo Canyon.

 

When

Ausra's application to the California Energy Commission was filed in October. The commission will review it and solicit comments from the public and affected agencies, such as SLO County. Approval, expected in the fourth quarter of 2008, would allow construction to begin in the first quarter of 2009, with startup in 2010.

 

Any questions?

At the Carrisa Plain Community Center meeting, Ausra's Fontana listed the benefits off of charts posted for all to see. The plant will burn no fuel, emit nothing into the atmosphere, use minimal water, and require no new transmission lines, yet it will create 75 permanent jobs and 365 construction jobs, he said. Ausra is already negotiating with building trade unions. And job descriptions are posted on the company's website.

THE WAY IT IS :  Ausra's solar facility in Australia makes use of the solar thermal technology planned for the Carrizo Energy Solar Facility. The process reflects solar energy onto water-filled tubes. When the water boils, it turns a turbine to create electricity.
  • THE WAY IT IS : Ausra's solar facility in Australia makes use of the solar thermal technology planned for the Carrizo Energy Solar Facility. The process reflects solar energy onto water-filled tubes. When the water boils, it turns a turbine to create electricity.

# What Fontana termed "minimal water use" is 18,500 gallons daily, a figure that served as a lightning rod for many listeners.

"It's less than was historically used," Fontana replied to one questioner. "We don't think we're going to pull the water table down."

"Will there be temporary housing for the workers?" asked another.

"No, we'll bus them in."

"Will the plant expand?"

"Right now we don't foresee expansion."

"Will there be noise and lights at night?"

"We don't anticipate noise. We'll close down at night."

One listener pressed the point: "If you find a way to store heat, would you run at night?"

"Well, maybe in the evening," Fontana conceded.

Reaction was as mixed as the diverse crowd itself, which ranged from clean-shaven ranchers in cowboy hats and boots to scruffier sorts in goatees and ponytails.

Cal Phillips is neither. He's a retired mechanical engineer.

"I'm not at all satisfied," he said. "If you take 18,000 gallons, that's 7.2 people per day moving in. Over a period of a year, that's 2,600. Over 10 years, it's 26,000. Can the aquifer take it?"

Taking the other side is white-haired Ken Tab, owner of the only motel, store, or restaurant properties in California Valley. "Anything for California Valley, I'm for," he declared. "I used to sell 20,000 gallons of water a day to the sheepherders. That's nothing."

California Valley Realtor Richie Burgett, a 20-year resident, grinned conspiratorially from behind his graying goatee.

"This area seems to attract scams," he confided. "It's been called the Wild, Wild East. They'll probably live up to their mandate [177 megawatts by 2010], but they could care less about 200 people here. They're talking 18,000 to 20,000 gallons a day. That really isn't that much. The concern is that the number could go higher."

Bill and Robin Bell are constructing a home just 1.2 miles west of the Ausra site. They bought 100 acres five years ago. They look at the plans for the 115-foot condenser buildings and see not green, but red. The tubing that receives the reflected sunlight will stand 56 feet high.

"These tubes will cover 640 acres," Robin exclaimed. She also pointed to the 400 employees expected to arrive 17 months after approval, when construction overlaps operation. Will all those workers be on the bus or on curvy, two-lane Highway 58?

 

The land

Bubbly Susan Cochran, 56, optioned the land to Ausra. A native of the Carrizo and part of the long-respected Lewis family, she could be the solar firm's most effective ambassador. Her mother, Alberta Lewis, was named SLO Cattlewoman of the Year in 2006.

"I don't know if I believe in global warming," Cochran began. "But sun is renewable. It's not nuclear and it's not coal-fired. We're going to make electricity and we're not going to kill anybody. Everybody's green, 'but not next door.' Somebody has to step up to the plate and start.

"The exciting thing is we're going to get some quality jobs and some quality people," she continued. "The local people raised on the plain are talented, and they have to go to town for jobs. A lot of families have had to leave. There are maybe 30 local people who go into town to try to keep the farm going."

Cochran, a landscape designer, actually lives in Salinas. She said that the Ausra parcel, which her family nicknamed "The Coyote," possesses two wells and has historically been irrigated for alfalfa, potatoes, or carrots. She and her family bought it at auction less than three years ago, in irony of ironies, from a power speculator. She and her husband Bill, a heavy equipment operator, intended it for irrigated row crops until the E. coli bacteria scare depressed the market.

"Isn't that amazing how they're all concerned about 18,000 gallons of water?" she chuckled. "It's like two trucks of water. There were high water uses all around there. It's south and east where there's poorer water."

Last spring, she began to receive letters from brokers sniffing the air about power possibilities. Ausra sent a representative in person. He offered twice as much as the others. The Lewis clan owns other properties--they graze cattle on them, but that's an increasingly marginal business. A sale to Ausra would help keep the ship afloat. Still, it was a difficult decision.

"When I was talking to John O'Donnell, I almost started crying, 'Nope, I'm not gonna do this,'" Cochran said. "But you've got to sell some land to hang on to what you've got.

"It's really sad to lose it. It took us three months to decide. It was going to be my husband's spot. But this opportunity might not come again. And we liked the people from Ausra.

"Maybe a lot of my best friends are angry about it, but they are kind enough not to say anything. You can just hope they can divide business and pleasure. In a few years, we're going to come back and build a home on Rimrock Road."

 

The nitty gritty

Though much was said at the meeting, much was also left unsaid. For example:

Ausra's Australian prototype is miniscule, just 1 megawatt, though it's being expanded to 11 megawatts. The firm is taking a leap of faith from 1 to 177 megawatts for Carrizo.

"We're building copies of the exact same thing," O'Donnell noted in a follow-up telephone interview. "It's just logistics."

One reason for taking such a leap may be the competition from rival technologies. The first to prove itself stands to earn trillions. Solel of Israel has a contract with PG&E for a whopping 553 megawatts. Solel uses sharply curved mirrors in a "parabolic trough." Stirling Energy of Phoenix owns the Stirling Solar Dish. Stirling signed with Southern California Edison for 500 megawatts and with San Diego Gas & Electric for 300. BrightSource, owners of "Power Towers"--where the sun heats an elevated turbine--announced in September a 400-megawatt plant.

"I'm going to predict the Carrizo plant will be the first one actually on the grid," O'Donnell insisted, noting that most projects are located on federal lands where permits take twice as long as from the state energy commission.

According to website greentechmedia, the commission reports 12 percent of renewable energy contracts signed since 2002 have been cancelled and 20 percent have been delayed. O'Donnell countered that the simplicity of the Ausra technology, especially its use of flat mirrors, ensures success.

"Henry Ford built the simplest automobile, not the sleekest or most efficient, but the simplest," he said.

"[The plant] is expected to be allowed a 100 percent property tax exemption," reads Ausra's application. Fontana finessed the issue at the meeting, but County Tax Assessor Tom Bordonaro confirmed it.

"There is an exclusion," he said. "Public policy since 1980 in California has been pretty clear. It's a subsidy of the industry."

More than $8,000 in county taxes have been paid on the property annually in the past.

Rancher Diefenderfer thought back to his days as a supervisor: "They're not going to have a friend at the courthouse," he summed up when he learned of the tax exemption.

Cal French of the Sierra Club didn't attend the meeting. He drove to the wrong place. But he's read part of the application.

"Just because this is a solar plant I'm not sure if this particular plant is a good idea," he said, citing water and the seven-plus-story size of the buildings. "It'll look like a factory out there."

Then he let his mind wander back to earlier, pleasanter visits past the Ausra site.

"I've seen antelope grazing," he said, "just east of there."

Contact freelancer John McReynolds through the editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

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