Board of Supervisors may encourage renewable projects

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday is scheduled to discuss revisions to the county’s planning framework that would put out the welcome mat for renewable energy projects.

Supervisors are putting the finishing touches on an update of the open space element, which establishes broad policies for how the county manages its undeveloped areas and natural resources.

County planning staff is recommending that more restrictive language concerning renewable energy plants, which was inserted in the element by the Planning Commission, be removed. The result would be a policy that explicitly encourages solar, wind power and other renewable energy systems in the county, said James Caruso, senior planner in charge of the open space element update.

“If you are going to encourage renewable energy, you should adopt policies that accomplish that,” he said. “We are not supposed to be throwing in more roadblocks.”

The county’s energy policy is significant because it will shape two large-scale commercial solar projects proposed for California Valley that are working their way through the permitting process. The county is expected to decide the fate of these two projects — both photovoltaic plants — late this year or early next year.

One would be a sprawling, 500-megawatt plant surrounding Highway 58 and Bitterwater Road. The other, a 250-megawatt plant to be located south of Highway 58 near the county’s eastern border.

Environmental groups and those who oppose the two commercial solar projects support the Planning Commission’s additions. Removing them would be a step backward, said Andrew Christie of the local chapter of the Sierra Club.

“We would urge the board to support the Planning Commission,” he said. “We are not in favor of removing environmental protections even for renewable energy projects.”

Supervisors are expected to finish their review of the open space element April 20 and approve the final version. The revised element would go into effect 30 days after it is approved, said Supervisor Jim Patterson, whose district includes California Valley.

The revisions that planners are asking supervisors to adopt would remove several policy modifications made by the Planning Commission, which approved the element before it went to supervisors.

One revision encourages the development of local power. Local power is frequently called distributed generation and refers to small-scale and rooftop solar installations in many locations.

The word “local” should be removed because it lacks a precise definition and would be problematic, Caruso said. The goal of the open space element is to encourage all renewable energy projects, large and small, he said.

Another change deals with the location of renewable energy facilities. The Planning Commission added language that would specify certain requirements that renewable energy projects would have to meet, including water conservation and steps to avoid reflecting light on populated areas or damaging wildlife habitat.

Specifying such requirements is unnecessary in a broad public policy document like the open space element, Caruso said. Instead, the policy should encourage renewable energy to be located in those areas of the county that have suitable sunlight and wind resources.

“The public policy statement is clear and unambiguous: solar, wind power and other renewable energy systems will be encouraged,” Caruso summarized in his staff report to supervisors.