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Proposed American Canyon solar array

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

Napa County is willing to have some utility-scale solar energy projects feeding the power grid, but not a sea of silicon panels marring wine county scenery.

“I don’t want to see solar on hillsides,” county Supervisor Belia Ramos said, adding utility-scale solar projects shouldn’t be readily visible.

No one wants to see a return to the days of rolling blackouts and not being able to turn on the lights, Ramos said. She mentioned the airport industrial area as a place suited for solar.

County supervisors on Tuesday held a workshop on utility-scale solar farms. Ideas include not allowing such projects in the Agricultural Preserve and having criteria for projects in the agricultural watershed, such as not cutting down forests.

Utility-scale solar projects cover acres of land and generate power for public utilities. That is a separate issue from smaller projects, such as a winery installing solar panels to provide for its own energy needs. Napa County’s first utility-scale solar project is being built near American Canyon.

Supervisors asked staff for a map of power lines that could feed the grid for utility-scale solar farms. That would reveal potential locations for such projects.

“Truth is, access to the grid is going to limit solar in most areas, anyway,” Board chairman Ryan Gregory said.

Farmland in Napa County ranges from world-class vineyards to grassy fields used to graze cattle. No one at the workshop voiced the fear that Napa Valley is in danger of becoming a solar Silicon Valley.

“As I understand the finances of solar projects, I don’t think there’s much demand for vineyards to be replaced with a utility project,” county Principal Planner John McDowell told supervisors.

The Napa County Farm Bureau wrote to the county that solar projects located on private, productive farmland should be subordinate to farming and not permanently reduce productive agricultural capacity. Priority for projects on public land should be given to marginal or non-productive farmland.

Silicon panels and the airport industrial area seemed like a good match to supervisors. But even here, they had caveats.

Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht prefers placing panels on warehouse roofs and parking structures, as opposed to building ground-level solar farms that eat up limited land for future industrial building needs.

“I’m nervous about making it too much of a priority to change it to a solar or alternative energy field,” he said.

Existing county zoning law doesn’t address utility-scale solar farms. However, it allows public utility uses in any zoning district with a use permit, which means winning Planning Commission approval. County staff said solar farms fall under this definition.

Last year, Renewable Properties proposed a solar farm in Coombsville and a solar farm near American Canyon, both to provide power for Marin Clean Energy (MCE). It withdrew the Coombsville proposal amid controversy. The county approved the American Canyon project that recently broke ground.

The American Canyon solar farm is to have 12,000 solar panels on 18 acres of agriculture-watershed zoned land near Interstate 80. It will produce enough power for 1,000 homes. MCE provides electricity in Napa County.

“It’s really made so you’re not seeing it very much from the road or from the residences in that area,” Wagenknecht said. “They’re not looking at that. And it will be online in July.”

The Renewable Properties proposals sparked the solar energy farm debate to set standards before more projects are proposed.

Resident Laura Tinthoff told supervisors on Tuesday that utility-scale solar farms are manufacturing plants. They turn a raw product – sunshine – into something for sale, which is electricity.

Napa County, while crafting solar farm rules, needs to look at such things as fire hazards and decommissioning, she said. She held up a list of things for supervisors to consider.

“I’m really excited and enthusiastic we are moving forward,” said Tinthoff, who was involved in the effort by residents to fight the proposed Coombsville solar project.

County staff will prepare changes to the zoning ordinance to address utility-scale solar projects. The proposals will go first to the Planning Commission. McDowell said the county has no applications for utility-scale solar projects, though two preliminary concepts have come forward for the airport industrial area.

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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.