Major SunPower plant gets local approval

LOS ANGELES Thu Feb 24, 2011 8:00pm EST

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A SunPower Corp project slated for Central California received county-level approval on Tuesday, overcoming a key hurdle on the road to building what could one day be one of the world's largest power plants that create energy from the sun's light.

The Planning Commission of San Luis Obispo county approved the project after a string of hearings during which the five-member commission weighed the project's economic and environmental benefits against its impact on native species, local residents and the region's rural landscape.

"My concern is for many many years from now," the commission's chairwoman, Carlyn Christianson, said just before the vote. "I do believe our society ... really has to start having these difficult conversations about what we are going to do about energy."

The decision will likely be appealed to the county's Board of Supervisors, Christianson said earlier in the day.

SunPower's photovoltaic California Valley Solar Ranch is expected to generate enough electricity to power about 100,000 homes and will create 350 jobs during construction. NRG Energy Inc said in November that it would invest up to $450 million of equity in the project over the next four years.

NRG will assume ownership of the project, though SunPower will develop it. San Jose, California-based SunPower is also seeking a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy to help finance the project.

California is pushing aggressively for more renewable energy as part of its plan to combat global warming, but the California Valley project's approval was far from guaranteed.

During several hearings, the county planning commission heard from local residents and others who oppose the power plant on the grounds that it will disturb the habitat of the federally endangered giant kangaroo rat and San Joaquin kit fox, increase traffic on roads in the rural Carrizo Plain and contribute to higher rates of valley fever, a fungal infection that spreads when soil is disrupted.

Supporters testified that the project would create much-needed jobs in the county and pave the way toward wider adoption of renewable energy.

Construction of the plant is expected to start this summer and last 2-1/2 years, according to SunPower. It still needs approval from the California Department of Fish and Game.

San Luis Obispo county will soon consider approval of First Solar Inc's 550 MW Topaz Solar Farm, also slated for the Carrizo Plain.

(Reporting by Nichola Groom, additional reporting by Braden Reddall; Editing by Gary Hill)