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Solar plans on Altamont Pass raise land use issue  

According to the Ohlone Audubon Society, solar panels blanketing the ground could affect the hunting behavior of hawks, eagles, owls and kestrels, driving them toward Altamont Pass' lethal wind turbines.

Credit:  Nate Seltenrich, Special to The Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, www.sfgate.com 10 September 2011 ~~

Fertile fields located east of Altamont Pass on Alameda County’s eastern boundary may soon give way to industrial-scale solar energy plants, including one that could rival those built on federal land in the Mojave Desert.

The windswept land that once grew alfalfa and sugar beets – and in some cases still does – could be the site of three solar plants ranging in size from 14 to 2,000 acres. But this explosion of green technology has not been embraced by environmentalists.

Abundant sunshine, flat terrain, and access to a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric Co. substation make the location outside Mountain House attractive to solar developers. In May, Fremont company GreenVolts began construction on a 14-acre, 2.6-megawatt solar plant that is big enough to power more than 2,000 homes. The plant is already pumping power into the grid and could hit full capacity by the end of the year.

The company boasts that its concentrator photovoltaic arrays, which use special lenses to focus the sun’s energy onto high-efficiency solar cells the size of a fingertip, require half the land of conventional flat-panel photovoltaic technologies. Yet the Sierra Club opposed the project when a proposed expansion from eight to 14 acres came before a county zoning board last year, in part because the county had yet to develop a policy for solar development on rural lands.

Ecological values in the region may not be as rich as in the California desert, where battles over fragile topsoils and endangered species such as the desert tortoise have pitted solar energy developers against environmentalists. Still, the area near the Alameda-San Joaquin County line provides habitat for federally protected species including the threatened California red-legged frog, the California tiger salamander and the endangered San Joaquin kit fox.

The biggest threat may be to the area’s raptors. According to the Ohlone Audubon Society, solar panels blanketing the ground could affect the hunting behavior of hawks, eagles, owls and kestrels, driving them toward Altamont Pass’ lethal wind turbines.

Urban sites

Dick Schneider, an East Bay open-space activist with the Sierra Club, opposes the use of arable land for solar panels without first exhausting opportunities in urban areas, such as on rooftops or over parking lots. “It’s premature to go outside of the developed footprint to develop solar arrays,” he said. “The county should increase its efforts to encourage solar energy development on already developed lands.”

Alameda’s Planning Department is conducting an environmental review for a second, 150-acre plant designed by Cool Earth Solar of Livermore that would be adjacent to GreenVolts’ arrays. A third photovoltaic solar plant on 2,000 acres, or just over 3 square miles, has been proposed but not yet formally submitted by Pegasus Energy Systems of Illinois.

Still, the Sierra Club’s objection to the GreenVolts expansion seems to have made an impression. The county – which has played a significant role in the development of large-scale solar in the California desert through Oakland developers BrightSource, Solar Millennium and First Solar – is devising a policy for solar development on land in the county.

Six public meetings on the topic have been held in the last seven months, and a draft policy is scheduled to go before the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, said Planning Director Albert Lopez.

The policy will guide the review of projects while outlining acceptable environmental and agricultural impacts and mitigations

Renewable sources

Alameda County is far from alone in confronting the issue.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law in 2009 requiring utilities to draw a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020, up from the previous standard of 20 percent, a benchmark that has still not been reached. As a result, developers have increasingly eyed the state’s sun-soaked farmland for energy development.

Tulare County in the southeastern Central Valley has approved permits for six solar plants; construction on the first three will begin within the next two months. Another seven or eight have been proposed. Most fall in the 20- to 40-kilowatt range and are on less-than-ideal farmland.

“If you got prime farmland right on the river stream, then we probably wouldn’t allow that one to be used up with solar farms,” Chief County Planner Ben Kimball said.

However, last year the county adopted a controversial policy to permit solar projects on lands covered by the state’s Williamson Act, which offers landowners a lower tax rate in exchange for promising the property will be used for agriculture. One such project has already been approved.

Darrel Sweet says he fears the same could happen in eastern Alameda County, less than a decade after housing developers tried to claim some of the same parcels.

The longtime Altamont Pass rancher and current chairman of the Alameda County Agricultural Advisory Committee said that only 3,000 acres of prime farmland remain in the county.

Of these, 2,000 acres have been tentatively proposed for development by Pegasus Energy Systems. Even lower-grade farmland could be permanently decommissioned by solar projects when unused water rights expire.

“The conundrum is going to be, what kind of land are we going to cover up to put these projects on?” Sweet said. “There’s not going to be an answer that satisfies everybody.”

Learn more

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss a draft policy on solar arrays at a meeting that starts at 1 p.m. Tuesday in board chambers, 1221 Oak St., room 512, Oakland. For more information, go to acgov.org/board.

Source:  Nate Seltenrich, Special to The Chronicle, San Francisco Chronicle, www.sfgate.com 10 September 2011

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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