Written by Robert Selna, Selna Partners, LLP
Solar panels continue to drop in price, generate power more efficiently, and attract private developers who consider solar a good investment and pro-environment. As a result, it appears likely that the State of California will reach its goal of generating sixty percent of its electricity with renewable energy sources by 2030.
It is also clear that large solar projects that generate the most power at the lowest price, require large amounts of flat, undeveloped property proximate to power substations. In California, the property meeting this criteria tends to be agricultural. This reality sets the stage for conflicts between groups that share similar goals: on one hand are renewable energy proponents hoping to reduce the state’s reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting energy sources; the other is environmentalists and open space advocates, including those concerned about the state’s declining acreage of farmland and the native wildlife habitats and species that live and around it.
The Nature Conservancy estimates that California will need between 1.6 and 3.1 million acres of solar and wind facilities by 2050 to decarbonize the electricity system and support a complete transition to green energy. The Nature Conservancy has noted that “with so much development on the horizon, it’s imperative that energy planners incorporate impacts to nature when making decisions about a clean energy future.”
Some of California’s local jurisdictions that feature large swaths of agricultural land and open space have started to address the inevitable clash between renewable energy development and nature conservation. They have identified areas for solar development where there is “least conflict” with productive farmland and imperiled plants, animals and natural habitats. For example, Santa Clara and Contra Costa Counites have conducted studies and UC Berkeley completed a similar analysis focused on the San Joaquin Valley.
The counties that are not working to address the coming conflicts associated with the expected boost in solar development are doing so at their own peril and, instead, may see such disputes resolved by the courts, potentially at a high cost to taxpayers.
There are a few common sense actions that county governments can take to help avoid clashes, but local government agencies and elected officials must give the actions priority to get them done in a timely fashion, as the demand for solar land rapidly expands. Examples include 1) completing solar mapping studies to understand least conflict areas; 2) executing general plan and zoning code amendments and related environmental reviews to provide solar developers and the public with more certainty about where large solar installations may be sited; and 3) educating agencies and the public about renewable energy, the state’s goals and the best approaches to achieving such aspirations.
I have seen firsthand how the failure to prepare for the inevitable tension between solar development and land preservation can lead to bad results. My law firm currently represents an association of 250 property owners, cattle ranchers, environmentalist and proponents of good government called Save North Livermore Valley (“SNLV”).
For more than six months, SNLV has been at odds Alameda County over the County’s decision to process solar development permit in eastern Alameda County. The developer proposes to place approximately 460 acres of ground-mounted solar panel facilities and storage batteries in North Livermore Valley, situated between the City of Livermore and the Altamont Pass.
Alameda County features hundreds of thousands of agriculture acres on its east side and provides an example of a jurisdiction that has publicly committed to the laudable goal of providing more renewable energy for residents and contributing to the state’s renewable energy goals. Unfortunately, the County essentially ignored the coming battles that pit solar developers against farmers and environmentalists. The county is a cautionary tale for counties that fail to address the tension that occurs when solar companies set their sites on developing ag land and open spaces.
One County’s Commitment to Renewable Energy
The tension could have been avoided. A decade ago, Alameda County started down a path to provide clear guidance to solar developers and conservationists, but never completed the work. Now, the 460-acre project, called, Aramis, is causing the very tension the County sought to once avoid. That’s because the project is proposed for North Livermore Valley, which has long been the site of ranchland and is subject to a voter initiative intended to protect agricultural land, wildlife habitats, watersheds, “and the beautiful open space of Alameda County from excessive, badly located and harmful development.”
The County’s support for solar originated in 2009. That’s when Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty spearheaded the start of East Bay Community Energy (“EBCE”), a non-profit that contracts with clean energy projects to provide more renewable power for residents of the East Bay. Haggerty represents East County, which includes Livermore and is, by far, the County’s most agricultural area. According to County staff reports, “EBCE has brought greater levels of renewable energy at competitive prices to residents of Alameda County….A major goal of the EBCE is to encourage and invest in renewable energy, including solar at the local level.” (citation?)
In East Alameda County between 2008-2012, developers proposed two utility-scale solar projects on land historically used for cattle grazing before the County completed studies on the best locations to site large solar facilities in east county. In 2012, the Supervisors instructed to the County’s planning staff to complete the studies and a general plan amendment before any new large-scale solar projects were approved in east county. Unfortunately, that direction appears to have been ignored.
Common Sense Steps Can Avoid Conflict
A general plan is county’s most fundamental planning document. In Alameda County, a general plan amendment could have clarified locations where solar installations were allowed and provided a map to reflect the locations. For instance, a general plan might have permitted large solar installations in East County except for in areas identified as scenic routes, or where wineries concentrated vineyard land.
Zoning divides counties into districts and applies different regulations in each district. Within the districts, zoning dictates the specific uses that are allowed and dictates the scale and scope of those uses. Zoning also includes the uses that are permitted as of right, or conditionally permitted – meaning permitted if they meet certain conditions. In Alameda County, a zoning amendment regarding large-scale solar installations might have limited the contiguous acreage of solar facilities so that they did not occupy a disproportionate amount of land. An amendment also could have dictated that solar projects compensate for any land they occupy by preserving an equal amount of rangeland elsewhere.
Under the California Environmental Quality Act, general plan and zoning amendments require an environmental impact report (“EIR”). An EIR is intended to help understand the ecological implications of the proposed amendments. As an example, if a proposed zoning amendment allowed utility-scale solar in an area known for migrating species, the EIR would alert the county and the county might modify the locations to avoid the conflict.
Mapping studies indicating solar installation locations least likely to impacts the environment have helped counties amend their general plans and zoning districts. In one example, UC Berkeley completed a mapping study throughout the San Joaquin Valley using four mapping components: 1) Areas that allow for the movement of species; 2) Occupied or potential rare species and communities; 3) Conservation lands that already prevent or restrict development such as dedicated conservation lands and federally-designated critical habitat; and 4) Expertly-identified conservation priority areas.
Finally, given the State of California’s necessary efforts to transition to renewable energy and a corresponding interest from developers to install solar facilities on California ag land, governmental agencies’ decisions must be well-informed. It is not enough for a county agency to know that more solar is needed. A more nuanced understanding is required to evaluate circumstances in which renewable energy development goals conflict with other environmental priorities.
The Transition to Renewable Energy
Currently California is transitioning from fossil fuel power sources to renewables including solar, but the transition cannot happen overnight. To be a truly reliable source of energy, solar requires battery storage, otherwise the state’s power grid loses its renewable power at night. Battery storage technology needs more work to work effectively for the grid, but advances are being made.
Since 2015, California’s solar generation has increased by 350% and accounts for fifty percent of all green energy sources in the state. In recent years, California has actually produced too much solar power during the day and has had to “curtail” the solar power by off-loading it to other states.
State statistics show that more solar is on the way. According to the California Energy Commission, 9,460 solar facility projects have obtained permits but have not yet completed construction. Many of those are expected to come online in the next five years. As a result, the nascent clash between solar developers and those advocating to preserve agriculture land and open space is only expected to increase.
County governments can better manage and possibly avoid some of these disputes with timely least-conflict studies and mapping, land use amendments and education. They should not delay!