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Renewable energy

Napa County commercial solar proposal raises larger questions

Proposed American Canyon solar array

This simulation shows where the proposed commercial solar farm would go along American Canyon Road near Interstate 80 in southern Napa County. The area targeted for the solar array is in green.

Napa County Planning Commissioners are contemplating whether the county needs rules to keep key wine country scenic vistas from someday being transformed by acres of silicon solar panels.

Renewable Properties raised the issue by proposing what would be the county’s first commercial solar farm on 18 acres at 2180 American Canyon Rd. The grazing land is miles from Napa Valley’s world-famous vineyards, near Interstate 80 and PG&E lines.

“In all candor, this is the perfect site,” Aaron Halimi of Renewable Properties told commissioners during a non-conclusive Wednesday hearing that is to continue on Nov. 28.

He received little argument. But several members of the public warned the commission against setting a precedent for agriculturally zoned land before the county has regulations in place for commercial solar farms.

The American Canyon solar farm would have 12,096 panels and produce enough electricity for 1,000 homes. Renewable Properties would sell the power to MCE, formerly known as Marin Clean Energy, which serves Napa County.

Planning Commissioners were spared from making an immediate decision. Neighboring Solano County wants Travis Air Force Base to evaluate whether solar panel glare might bother pilots. This seems to be more of a precaution, with the Solano letter adding there’s little likelihood of a glare or glint issue.

Despite the delay, the project received an airing-out at Wednesday’s Planning Commission meeting.

The only solar farm before the commission was the American Canyon project. But the unspoken backdrop was another, more controversial proposal by Renewable Properties to build a solar farm on agriculturally zoned land near Coombsville.

“This (American Canyon) application sets a precedent that may be impossible to challenge for the next application or the one after that,” said Eve Kahn of Get a Grip on Growth and Napa Vision 2050.

Laura Tinthoff of Napa said the county lacks the necessary tools to stop solar farms from invading the land. Neighboring counties are far ahead with zoning regulations for commercial solar projects, she said.

“We are the weak link and a sitting duck for commercial solar development,” Tinthoff said. “Consider all the vacant hillside properties for sale due to the fire.”

Halimi disputed the idea that commercial solar farms will run rampant in Napa County.

“It’s not logistically possible, nor do I think it’s economically possible given land prices here,” Halimi said.

The grid can take only so much energy production from a certain location or region before adding still more becomes uneconomical. Plus, solar farms can’t compete economically with vineyard, industrial and commercial uses, Halimi said.

Halimi talked about solar power helping to combat climate change and helping California’s push to have 100 percent renewable electric power by 2045.

“This proposal is an opportunity for Napa County to be part of the solution,” he said.

Planning Commissioners said they want to see commercial solar power generated in the county. But several also agreed that the county needs regulations.

Commissioner Dave Whitmer said the county during its climate action plan discussions might begin prezoning where solar farms should go – and more importantly, where they shouldn’t go.

Commissioner Jeri Hansen said the county could identify renewable energy zones. These would be the areas that are most appropriate for solar arrays and other projects at various scales and sizes.

“It’s really too bad we don’t have the renewable zoning already,” Commissioner Joelle Gallagher said.

That raises the question of whether the Planning Commission will approve the American Canyon solar project in advance of the county taking a harder look at commercial solar in general. The county Board of Supervisors has yet to launch such an effort or even say that it wants to do so.

This isn’t the first time the Planning Commission has considered a commercial solar farm. It approved a 6.7-megawatt, 25,000-panel farm for the closed American Canyon landfill in 2010, but the project was never built.

In addition, Ciel & Terre USA is exploring whether to build a floating commercial solar farm on the Napa Sanitation District ponds south of the city of Napa.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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