Napa County’s second commercial utility-scale solar energy project could be under construction early next year in the airport industrial area south of the city of Napa.
The county Planning Commission on Dec. 18 approved the Soscol Ferry solar project. More than 7,800 solar panels are to produce two megawatts of electricity, enough to power 750 homes annually.
The Soscol Ferry solar farm is to be built by Renewable Properties, the same company that last year opened a solar farm near American Canyon. Once again, electricity is to be transmitted to the Pacific, Gas & Electric grid for use by Marin Clean Energy, the nonprofit agency that provides power to many local customers.
“Solar is a low-impact development,” said Aaron Halimi of Renewable Properties. “Also in this instance, there’s no impact to neighbors, as it’s in an industrial park.”
The Planning Commission decided the 22.4-acre site near Soscol Ferry Road and the Napa Sanitation District’s sewage treatment plant is the right place for utility-scale solar.
“I think the solar project is absolutely compatible with the use, the space, the zone,” Commissioner Jeri Hansen said.
The land is zoned industrial, though it has been dry-farmed as a vineyard. Owner Kimbal Giles is selling the site and retiring at age 83.
“I now think the highest and best use for my property might be for solar power generation,” Giles wrote to the county. “That way we can farm solar energy and still preserve the heart of the valley. And, most importantly, it would be helping fight global warming and preserve our world for future generations.”
To make room for the solar arrays, Renewable Properties will remove 120 trees, mostly non-native black locusts. The planned tree removal caused some controversy.
Nancy Piotrowski of Napa-Solano Audubon Society said birds come here to breed, feed and travel through. Those birds live in trees.
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“I’d like to ask you to start by imaging losing 120 homes in your neighborhood,” she told commissioners.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife in a letter expressed concern about the loss of habitat for Swainson’s hawk and white-tailed kite. Renewable Properties made such changes as lowering the tree loss from the original 168 to 120.
Halimi said the project will preserve nearly 200 trees, most along Soscol Creek, which is the prime nesting habitat. The black locusts to be removed are not nesting habitat for raptors, he said.
Renewable Properties is working with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Pollinator Partnership to create a “pollinator meadow.” The plan is to hydroseed so native plants grow under and around the eight-foot-tall solar arrays.
“That will enhance the local biodiversity of about a three-mile radius around the site,” Halimi said.
The county Airport Land Use Commission ruled the same day that the solar project is compatible with nearby Napa County Airport. Commissioners didn’t think glare from the solar panels would be a problem for pilots flying overhead.
Renewable Properties originally wanted to build the project on agriculturally zoned land amid the rolling hills and farms of Coombsville. The proposal drew opposition from nearby residents.
The criticism led to Renewable Properties withdrawing the Coombsville application and relocating the project to the airport industrial area. Solar arrays on land zoned for industrial development proved an easier sell.
“I just want to commend you for being responsive and listening to the community and finding a way and a solution,” Hansen told Halimi.
Meanwhile, the county Board of Supervisors is working on rules for commercial utility-scale solar farms in Napa County. It has indicated it will ban new, grid-feeding solar projects from agriculturally-zoned lands, then next spring consider if there should be any exceptions.