A proposed 11.5-acre utility solar power farm received a chilly reception during a community meeting in the rural Coombsville region where it would be built.
Opponents say 2 megawatts of energy for the power grid is the wrong crop to reap in this agricultural area. The developer says the project would be a local solution to the global climate change problem.
Aaron Halimi of Renewable Properties hosted the community meeting Tuesday at Mount George Elementary School east of the city of Napa. More than 100 people attended, as opposed to the 25 to 30 people Halimi said he had expected.
“We have firsthand experience working in areas where property values are not impacted by solar farms,” Halimi told the audience.
But what would be Napa County’s first utility commercial solar farm proved a tough sell to those attending.
“The majority of people in this audience do not want it … you might want to cut your losses,” resident John Zimmermann told Halimi, prompting a loud round of applause.
Renewable Properties wants to build two solar farms in Napa County. One would be at 10 Palm Drive in Coombsville and the other near American Canyon. Together, they would generate enough electricity to power a couple thousand homes.
Halimi said the proposed Coombsville farm has been shrunk from the original 17 acres to 11.5 acres. Power from the project would be sold to Marin Clean Energy, the agency that provides electricity for much of Napa County using PG&E lines and billing services.
Renewable Properties filed an application for the project with the county on April 25. The project to move forward must receive a use permit from the Napa County Planning Commission, with no meeting yet scheduled.
Hanna Stolarczyk lives about a mile from Palm Drive. She learned of the proposed project from the Nextdoor Napa portal and opposes it.
Stolarczyk said the commercial solar project would be a nuisance for Coombsville residents. It would destroy the aesthetic integrity of the neighborhood, cause the removal of several acres of oaks and might encourage others to lease land for solar projects.
“By definition, agricultural land is meant for ag use,” she told the Napa Valley Register in an email.
Opponents have created the “No Palm Drive Solar” website with a petition against the project. “Right idea, wrong location,” the site says.
“People come here to see vineyards and mountains,” one speaker at the community meeting told Halimi. “No one wants to be sipping cabernet and looking at a solar farm.”
Halimi tried to clear up what he thought were misconceptions about solar farms, such as that they cause glare. The panels are designed to absorb the sunlight, not reflect it, he said.
Nor does he see his project as opening the floodgates to solar energy farms in Napa County’s agricultural areas. The grid can take only so much power generation before requiring upgrades that make projects financially infeasible. Marin Clean Energy has a limited appetite for solar, he said.
Plus, Napa County has limited land that is affordable for solar projects, Halimi said.
“We’re not competing with vineyard economics here,” he said.
Napa County’s zoning code for its agricultural watershed doesn’t mention solar power as an allowed use. But county officials said solar power fits in under an “exceptions” chapter of the code, if the county grants a use permit.
Halimi said the county approved a utility solar project for the agricultural watershed in 2010, providing a path for his project to receive a permit.
The Napa County Planning Commission that year approved a 6.7-megawatt solar farm on the closed American Canyon landfill near wetlands and the city of American Canyon. The zoning is agricultural watershed/airport compatibility. The project never was built.
“Electric generating plants are considered public utility uses and are allowed in any zoning district upon the grant of a use permit,” said a 2010 county report to the Planning Commission.
One attendee at Tuesday’s meeting suggested that the county should do more to regulate commercial solar energy farms in agricultural areas.
Halimi started the meeting with a brief introduction and then moved on to questions and answers. He spent much of the time listening to people tell him why the proposed solar farm is a bad fit for rural Coombsville.
“My hope for today was to engage in more of a dialogue on the project and answer any questions,” he said at one point.
His original idea was to have participants sit in a circle. That proved impossible because of the sheer number of people packing into the room.
County Supervisor Belia Ramos sat in the back of the room listening to the comments. She would have a vote on the project only if a Planning Commission decision was appealed to the Board of Supervisors.
Halimi said Wednesday that Renewable Properties will continue pursuing the Coombsville project. One other commercial solar project is proposed for Napa County, this one a floating array on the Napa Sanitation District ponds to be built by Ciel & Terre USA.