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Sonoma County takes closer look at green energy projects


With renewable energy development now a central issue in Sonoma County, disputed rules that would govern the size and location of green energy projects are returning to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday for approval.

The zoning changes, which focus largely on solar systems, would open up more land in unincorporated areas to commercial-scale projects, including agricultural, industrial and business parcels.

Dave Hood, CEO of Coldwell Solar, stands close to the site of the company's proposed 22.6-acre solar farm site near the intersection of Frates Road  and Adobe Road on Thursday, May 9, 2013 in Petaluma. (Beth Schlanker / PD)

Dave Hood, CEO of Coldwell Solar, stands close to the site of the company’s proposed 22.6-acre solar farm site near the intersection of Frates Road and Adobe Road on Thursday, May 9, 2013 in Petaluma. (Beth Schlanker / PD)

The first test case could be a 23-acre solar panel installation proposed for a hayfield outside Petaluma, a project prohibited under current zoning but allowed under the revised rules up for approval.

The new zoning would also ease generation limits on non-commercial renewable systems installed for homes and businesses and lift them entirely for systems covering roofs or parking areas.

Most who have weighed in on the rules agree such projects — in the developed, urban environment — should come first.

The main dispute has centered on where and how to allow energy development on a wider swath of the county’s croplands, ranches and forested properties.

When the rules first came to the Board of Supervisors in May, that question divided key agricultural interests. Some favored strong protections against farmland conversions for energy generation, while others argued for flexibility and against a ban on projects in the county’s highest-value cropland, including vineyards.

The issue has also presented environmentalists with a complicated choice between priorities that can be at odds — green energy development and landscape protection.

The debate — mirrored across the country amid the wider rollout of renewable energy projects — has been especially significant because of the pending launch of Sonoma County’s public power agency, a venture built on the promise of local green energy generation.

Revisions to the proposed rules since May have favored farming and environmental groups that have argued for stronger regulations. The changes would put tighter limits on the size of projects on a vast swath of ranch- and forestland and allow for greater public input on the largest projects.

The rules appear to have the support of the majority of the Board of Supervisors, which was shorthanded with four members present in May when it postponed the issue for further study.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who missed that initial hearing and has since been seen as pivotal vote on the issue, last week called the rules “very reasonable,” saying they struck “a good balance” between land protection and allowing energy development.

“This county has made a huge investment to preserve agricultural land and open space,” Zane said, citing the approximately 105,000 acres protected by the county’s taxpayer-supported Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. “Anything that would undermine that investment is very foolish.”

But a representative of local grape growers and chief critic of the rules in May continues to argue they are heavy handed.

Bob Anderson, executive director of the United Winegrowers of Sonoma County, has balked at the blanket prohibition on projects on some cropland, including about 16,000 acres of largely hillside or riverside property.

He contends those acres, which carry the same zoning as the county’s most prized farmland but are not designated by the state as prime, unique or important property, should not be subject to the commercial project ban. It would cover about 70,000 acres of cropland, including vineyard and orchard properties.

“It’s a big deal when you put that restriction on through the zoning power of government,” Anderson said.

In May, Anderson said he would urge his members — 250 growers and wineries — to pull their support for the county’s power agency without changes in his group’s favor.

Last week, he appeared to have backed off that threat, voicing some resignation about the political outcome.

“I think things are pretty much stuck where they were before,” he said. “We’ll just wait to see what the board does.”

Farming and environmental groups that have lobbied for stronger regulations, meanwhile, welcomed the regulatory stand.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau representatives have grudgingly signed off on size limits for projects in the largest chunk of new land being opened to energy development: 180,000 acres of pasture land, much of it in the south county.

Caps would limit the size of systems on those non-prime farm acres to 30 percent of the parcel, or a maximum of 50 acres. Ideally, Farm Bureau leaders said, those limits would be even tighter.

“That was the compromise we reached,” said Tito Sasaki, president of the county Farm Bureau. “We don’t want too much land converted for any other non-agricultural use.”

A smaller cap — at 15 percent of the parcel or up to 5 acres — would be implemented for 395,000 acres of ranches and forest properties zoned as rural resource lands. Commercial energy projects are currently allowed on that acreage, though none exist outside of The Geysers geothermal field.

Conservationists had lobbied for the tighter cap to limit impacts on scenery and wildlife habitat, resources they argue are important to sustain the region’s tourism and agricultural industries.

“Caution, I think, is appropriate in this circumstance,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

Commercial projects would also be subject to design and environmental review requirements and public input. Proposals that exceed size caps would only be permitted through rezoning to a new “Renewable Energy” district, a step that would trigger additional public input.

Supervisors Mike McGuire and Susan Gorin supported the stronger protections in May, while Supervisor Efren Carrillo was a lone voice favoring a lighter regulatory touch.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county and much of the pasture land that would be opened up to energy development, remains concerned about what the new rules could mean for the farmland in his district.

The 23-acre solar project proposed outside Petaluma, on a 130-acre hayfield off Frates and Adobe roads, looks to be the first test case.

Put forward by a Placer County firm, the 4-megawatt project — enough to power about 750 homes — is located across from a large PG&E substation and under high-voltage transmission wires. Proponents say it is an ideal spot to harness the sun’s energy.

But the City of Petaluma and a local environmental group have both weighed in with concerns about visual impacts and farmland conversion.

Rabbitt has also urged a cautious approach.

“Are we putting up a green light that will just allow the proliferation of these things and then we find out later that we were too liberal?” Rabbitt said. “We need to be thinking about the best uses of these lands and what the consequences will be.”

4 Responses to “Sonoma County takes closer look at green energy projects”

  1. Larry Watkins says:

    Green energy as envisioned by Sonoma County is another expensive fraud and total, total waste of taxpayer money. This thing needs to be stopped before more valuable land is used for solar panels and feel good projects.

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  2. Shocked Monkey says:

    The issue often ignored is what happens in a fire? There is not way to “turn off” a solar panel and the systems are eventually electrified at all times. Several firefighters have died in recent months.

    It is becoming more of an issue with millions of Firefighters put at risk every year.

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  3. observer says:

    Sonoma County may be the most beautiful place on earth.

    Despoiling the landscape with solar panels is a real concern. As is farmland conversion.

    But the open space issue may be more in the domain of aesthetics than economics.

    Does the County have substantial open space that’s in canyons or on hillsides or other areas not in line-of-sight to public view?

    That may be marginally productive as farmland? That can be economically connected to incumbent electrical grids?

    The argument over open space may mask a more interesting question.

    What’s the real purpose of Sonoma Clean Power?

    Randy Poole, the prior General Manager of the Water Agency, envisioned Sonoma Clean Power as a chance to lead the world with a community based initiative on climate change: as a science experiment in driving down CO2 in Sonoma County.

    Here’s what Randy had to say: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biR_WgdomE8. Randy points out that County of Sonoma CO2 emissions (this was in 2008) were over four million metric tons. And that the opportunity was there: to drive CO2 emissions down , substantially, with the application of practical science in partnership with world class science advisors and private and public capital sources.

    This science based approach was echoed by the County-and-City endorsed climate action plan in 2008 with this goal: “to meet Sonoma County’s bold greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target – 25% below 1990 levels by 2015.” http://climateprotection.org/our-work/sonoma-county/coolplan/

    Note that 25% below 1990 CO2 levels in Sonoma County means 2.7 million metric tons annual CO2 emissions. Today it’s 4.1 million metric tons. So the reduction goal is 1.4 million metric tons a year.

    Wait a minute. Are you suggesting that the real purpose of Sonoma Clean Power should be to lower CO2 emissions in Sonoma County by over a million metric tons? Could we also increase jobs in the process? And perhaps to engage a global dialog with Sonoma County as an applied science experiment in clean energy and clean living?

    Yes. The founding intent of Sonoma Clean Power was to actually lower local CO2 emissions, to increase jobs, and to attract the world’s best science and business minds to help us.

    So how we are doing?

    • Randy Poole left in early 2010.

    • He was replaced by some folks in the Water Agency whose actions bear no relation to lowering CO2, increasing jobs, running a best practices science experiment in climate protection; or even keeping power rates in check. To the contrary.

    • By the Water Agency’s own public testimony, Sonoma Clean Power will cost 15% to 20% more than Healdsburg/NCPA’s current rates.

    • Healdsburg/NCPA wasn’t even considered as a partner in the Water Agency’s feasibility study for Sonoma Clean Power.

    • The Water Agency just squandered $60 million of tax payer and rate payer money on Sonoma County Energy Independence (“SCEIP”), a clean energy effort, that created 18 new jobs annually—that’s over $3 million a job; and drove down CO2 emissions by 6,000 metric tons, compared to the County goal of reducing annual CO2 emissions by 1.4 million metric tons a year. This means the County and the Water Agency spent $60 million to reduce CO2 emissions by 6,000/1,400,000 or less than one half of one percent.

    • The current Sonoma Clean Power plan for lowering CO2 emissions involves trading paper certificates that may, theoretically, lower CO2 emissions somewhere in the Midwest; and bears no relation to lowering CO2 emissions in the County of Sonoma.

    • The current Sonoma Clean Power plan for jobs may be summed as spending $250,000 for a website and hiring a handful of professional consultants (not operating executives) to run Sonoma Clean Power.

    • Obviously, no distinguished panel of science or environmental business advisors has emerged; for the same reason that Sonoma Clean Power will find itself bereft of reputable, experienced power company operators.

    Here’s the reason for the want of distinguished, legitimate advisors and operators: they wouldn’t touch Sonoma Clean Power with a 30 foot power pole. Its only reason for existence is to replicate the County insiders’ dubious achievements on pensions and roads. The County of Sonoma’s leaders’ primary mission is to recycle cash via no-bid, ill-qualified and bogus contracts to campaign contributors, influencers and friends of the Supervisors; and this practice continues apace even in the founding days of Sonoma Clean Power with big spending on very small beer.

    The proof is in the pudding: why is there no written public statement on CO2 reduction goals; on employment; on balance sheet impact on the County of Sonoma? Why was the COunty’s low cost provider of electricity not even considered as a parnter in Sonoma Clean Power? Why isn’t there ANYONE connected to this project who has ever run a power company? Or has recognized credentials in the field of climate protection?

    Sonoma Clean Power is a billion dollar Ponzi scheme and the County of Sonoma—which contrary to its public promises –has already begun guaranteeing its debt; which means the taxpayers are on the hook yet again, in the wake of pensions and roads fiascos.

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  4. James Bennett says:

    This scam is everything the globalists crave, Agenda 21 all the way.

    Let’s see:

    -Another “Public-Private Partnership” like PG&E. Don’t forget, PG&E literally had a place at the table in Agenda 21 conception. Instrumental in the “Smart Grid”, a level of control and surveillance that would make George Orwell blush.

    -Creates a no choice market for players complicit in the implementation of Cap ‘N Trade.

    -Another instrument to crash with.

    -Another means of taking private property, don’t forget Sonoma Green Power has an eminent domain provision.

    -Deception; creates an illusion of choice.

    -Sonoma Green Power is partnered with ICLEI (search).

    -Another complicit player in Smart Meters which have received international concern.

    Owners of ag land, ranchers, dairy’s, vineyard owners should be very concerned.

    Because their land could be selected by some unaccountable adherent bureaucrat as an appropriate site for a solar panel or wind mill array. Even a large residential piece that gets a lot of sun or wind will be in jeopardy.

    They can take comfort in being told it’s “socially equitable”, for the “greater good” of the community.

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