SONOMA SUPERVISORS RESTRICT RENEWABLE AG DEVELOPMENT
BY STAS MARGARONIS
As Sonoma County prepares to launch Sonoma Clean Power (SCP), the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted for renewable agricultural land rules that were criticized by a leading vineyard association.
Robert Andersson, executive director at United Winegrowers which represents 200 wineries and vineyards in Sonoma County said: “The decision by the Board of Supervisors to place restrictions on farm land that can be used for renewable energy development is an outcome that I argued against.”
Andersson said the new rules “did not take into account that growers have some unusable land that might be set aside for renewable energy development.”
He added: “The Board seemed to see a threat to the entire 162,000 acres and this argument won the day. Farm land can easily be lost but the process that exists in Sonoma County protects us from that outcome. I think the Board of Supervisors lost sight of the possibilities for using unusable land. There is concern about solar installers acquiring large tracts of land to build solar farms. That’s a wolf that is not yet at the door.”
Andersson said that the Board’s action undermines the potential for renewable energy that the newly established Sonoma Clean Power agency offers to consumers and agricultural owners: “We have this opportunity with Sonoma Clean Power to create new revenue generation and more renewable power on Sonoma County farm land. SCP is designed to create more renewable energy locally. The Board’s decision set a higher hurdle that is going to make that renewable goal much more difficult for growers and for renewable interests in Sonoma County.”
A renewable energy consultant said that the original proposal developed by county planners was much broader but that environmental organizations restricted the amount of available land: “Are we just painting a shade of green on things or are we ready to make this work? Without the production of large quantities of renewable energy within the county energy costs will be much higher. Not to mention that this is a great time to see local companies and their employees working again. This local work should be performed by local companies to keep our economy local but that may not happen with the influx of out of state companies flooding in to take advantage of the opportunity. Local hire needs to be the subject of the day.”
The consultant said that wealthy homeowners “did not want views obstructed and pushed the Supervisors to cut back on available land to make the application process costly and burdensome.”
On September 10th, Supervisors voted 5-0 in favor of tighter rules and greater public input for commercial projects on farms, according to the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. New regulations have been instituted for commercial projects on agricultural property covering more than three-quarters of the county, or more than 700,000 acres.
The newspaper said regulations will allow renewable energy projects on about 140,000 agricultural acres where they were previously prohibited. Applicants will have to go through a rezoning process including hearings before planning commissioners and the Board of Supervisors. The regulations will ban ground-mounted commercial projects on about 70,000 acres of the highest-value cropland, including most vineyards.
Supervisor David Rabbitt, the board chairman, said the rules protected the county’s “strong agricultural heritage” and open space while removing constraints and offering incentives for green energy production, according to the newspaper.
“I think it really does go to trying to strike that balance that people have been talking about in this county,” Rabbitt said.
Conservationists welcomed the new regulations which were tighter than those discussed in May when the board first took up the issue.
“We think it’s really wise to take a precautionary approach,” said Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.
Cordel Stillman, deputy chief engineer at Sonoma County Water Agency and one of the architects of the new Sonoma Clean Power (SCP) Agency believes a process called “net energy metering” (NEM) will improve on the incentives previously offered by Pacific Gas and Electric to consumers and farmers to sell back renewable power.
Stillman says that “net energy metering can be used to support small scale, solar and other renewable installations. This will allow customers to reduce high energy costs associated with peak demand periods and sell electricity back to Sonoma Clean Power.”
Stillman says that eventually the SCP service will be an improvement over incentives offered by PG&E.
PG&E pays what is called the “market price referent” which is basically the price they pay for their cheapest natural gas power. SCP would pay more than PG&E, Stillman said. In the case of SCP, “what that price will be, will not be known until we know the price of our electricity. We should be able to define the program by the end of this calendar year. Marin Energy Association (MEA) pays 1 cent per kilowatt per hour above the retail price for power.’’
The California Public Utilities Commission explains the benefits of net energy metering as follows:
“Customers who install small solar, wind, biogas, and fuel cell generation facilities (1 MW or less) to serve all or a portion of onsite electricity needs are eligible for the state’s net metering program. NEM allows a customer-generator to receive a financial credit for power generated by their onsite system and fed back to the utility. The credit is used to offset the customer’s electricity bill. NEM is an important element of the policy framework supporting direct customer investment in grid-tied distributed renewable energy generation, including customer-sited solar PV systems.
The vast majority of solar PV customer-generators choose to be on a NEM tariff, with over 120,000 residential and non-residential accounts enrolled in California’s NEM program.”
Before the renewable installation program can begin, SCP will enter into power purchase agreements (PPA) with energy suppliers to determine how much electricity it can subsidize through the net energy metering program. Stillman expects that it will not be possible to offer the net energy metering program until the spring of 2014.
Stillman said the program is designed for small businesses and growers that can place solar panels on the roofs of their buildings, warehouses and parking lots.
IMPACT ON AGRICULTURE
In Sonoma County, agricultural producers will be a major market for the net energy metering program, Stillman said.
He said “In the case of agriculture producers, the installations need to be near a load center which means near a meter. The meters need to be on land that is contiguous and does not cross a street.”
There were expectations that SCP would help enhance the possibility for renewable energy development on farm land that is not usable for agriculture and help farmers create an additional revenue source while helping develop more renewable energy in Sonoma County.
However, agricultural representatives such as Bob Andersson are now wondering whether the same Sonoma County Board of Supervisors which established Sonoma Clean Power added to its challenges with the new restrictions on farmland.