Alameda County should create a raptor refuge in the Altamont to help preserve threatened species there, according to one environmentalist.
In addition, a five-year moratorium on permitting any new solar arrays in the Altamont should be established, because they might drive feeding birds eastward into wind turbines, said Rich Cimino, conservation director for Ohlone Audubon society.
Cimino made the suggestions Jan. 31 at an Alameda County Planning Department meeting in Dublin. It was held to sound out the public on what should be included in the county’s first-ever solar policy.
Cimino told three planning staffers taking comments that a moratorium on new arrays is important.
Raptors feed on rodents living in tall grass on the agricultural lands in the Altamont. If those areas were taken away by the low-grass maintenance needed for solar arrays, the rodents would move east. That would put them closer to wind turbines. More birds would fly into the turbines, said Cimino.
Mike Clevenger, president of Pegasus Energy Partners, said that on the other hand, if farming stops on the solar array areas, “How do we know there won’t be more rodents out there (in the current locations).” That would keep the raptors’ food locale in the same spot, and presumably not create the problem that Cimino was talking about.
Pegasus plans a solar installation on approximately 2000 acres in the Altamont. It would occupy more than one-half of the 3000-plus acres of prime agricultural land in Alameda County.
Cimino said an experience with a vineyard in Lodi already proved the point that changing the land use to solar will shift the rodent habitat.
Clevenger also said that Cimino is assuming that the raptors come from the east. However, if in fact they come from the west, maybe North Livermore should be the raptor preserve. In another month, Pegasus will have its study completed of the perimeter of the land. “We don’t know (right now) if it’s east or west,” he said.
Cimino said that the birds “fly mostly north and south, but it depends on the season.” However, the five-year moratorium is needed because “we can’t decide the long-term impact in five minutes. It will cost the county money and impact natural resources,” said Cimino.
Cimino was a member of the Altamont Wind Power stakeholders committee for several years. He said that the county made a big mistake by rushing into the repowering there. The attorney general’s office is now keeping a close eye on the Altamont, so slowing down is necessary to make sure that the state doesn’t sue the county over failure to dramatically reduce raptor deaths.
More specifically, bringing in solar would introduce a whole new factor in the study of looking at bird deaths. That could muddy the results for the conditions that were imposed on the wind turbines, said Cimino.
Another firm, Greenvolts, is building an array on 20 acres of a 62 acre parcel on Mountain House Road. It received approval before supervisors decided to create a policy on solar energy.
Coolearth applied for its permit in January 2011, and went through a CEQA review, which found no significant environmental impacts.
Coolearth was approved by the East County Board of Zoning Adjustment on Dec. 15 to build an installation nearby on 140 acres. However, the approval was appealed to supervisors by the Tri-Valley Conservancy later in the month.
Supervisors have scheduled a hearing on the appeal for Feb. 28. That’s the same day that the planning staff will hold a second evening meeting at the county public works building in Dublin on the proposed solar policy. The planners will have a draft plan then, which will be based on the comments they heard at the meeting Jan. 31.
MAJOR POLICY POINTS PROPOSED
Text released by the planning staff at the meeting lists four proposed policies for a solar ordinance. One covers the restoration of agricultural land after a solar installation shuts down.
That first policy point would cover such things as revegetation of the land, a plan and time frame for removing all equipment, and a signed statement by the owner that he or she would cover all costs.
One audience member said that requiring solar companies to post a bond is especially important. It was not required in the early days of Altamont wind turbines in the 1980s. Many of them were simply abandoned when the tax incentives that created them expired. That situation was later corrected for the wind turbines, said planning staff.
The staff also raises the question of preservation of prime agricultural soils. The staff is recommending that Policy 72 in the East county Agricultural Plan be amended “to allow greater flexibility for the consideration of uses that may be in the pubic interest besides intensive agriculture.”
No specific public uses are spelled out in the text. However, assistant planning director Liz McElligott said, “Potentially fulfilling the need for renewable energy might be seen as a greater good than agricultural production.” She added that the policy applies only to the Mountain House area in the Altamont.
A third policy would impose a “franchise fee” of 2 percent on gross annual revenue on large-scale solar projects that require county permits. The fee is intended to lessen the long-term effects of large-scale solar facilities.”
In Tulare County, a fee based on the number of megawatts supports the cost recovery “for public service impacts.”
Staff suggested that in Alameda County, fee revenue could help support agricultural infrastructure improvements and “other viticulture-enhancing programs.”
No one in the audience, including the two solar-array developers, discussed the proposal for the fee.
The fourth proposed policy would limit solar arrays in the South Livermore Valley Area Plan. Staff is recommending that any solar arrays in South Livermore be mounted on structures or, if on the ground, they cover only impervious surfaces within the designated building envelope.
Cimino commented that it is difficult to provide feedback about the proposal without knowing the results of the study conducted on Altamont birds. The five-year moratorium that Cimino suggested should apply to the entire study area, including South Livermore, he said.
OTHER ISSUES ARE RAISED
Audience members raised other issues for the planners. Jeff Miller, a representative of Center for Biological Diversity, has participated for years in the issue of Altamont raptor deaths from wind turbines.
Miller talked about an ongoing issue of concern for environmentalists. They say the county should be looking at distributive solar power, which means solar panels on roofs of homes and businesses, in order to help meet the state’s mandate for 33 percent green energy by 2020.
Supervisors said they would study distributive power in urban areas later. They said it was important to come up with a policy right away for prime agricutlural lands because of requests by Coolearth and Pegasus for solar arrays in the Altamont.
Clevenger said that the Altamont applications are close to the Kelso substation, which can upload the solar-generated power to the state grid. Urban rooftop power won’t go far enough to meet the state mandates of 33 percent green power. He said, “Only 5 percent can come from distributive. That was the way the Legislature wrote the law,” he said.
However, one study by San Diego consultant Bill Powers, an electrical engineer, shows that distributive power can meet more than the state required minimum of 33 percent for all green energy. It can go as high as 43 percent, Mack Casterman told The Independent after the meeting.
Casterman said that PG&E and other utilities lobbied the Legislature heavily to put the accent on desert and other locations for big solar arrays, so they could make money on building new infrastructure to move the electricity to the big grid.
However, Clevenger said in his remarks at the meeting that the current infrastructure near urban buildings that would have rooftop collectors don’t have enough infrastructure line capacity to sell much of their surplus power back to PG&E.
A business might be producing 20 megawatts, but can pump back only 1 megawatt, said Clevenger. By comparison, he said that his installation would produce 320 megawatts for the grid.
Bob Baltzer, president of Friends of Livermore, asked, “How can you sacrifice productive farm land for energy that is not going to solve the problem?”
County planning director Albert Lopez said, “There’s the rub. The land is flat, attractive, a green field. In the old days, housing developers wanted to set up shop. Yes, it’s a dichotomy.”
Dolores Bengtson, who has seen the issue before as a member of the county agricultural advisory commission, said that the advantage of distributive power is that it cuts into the amount of electricity that the grid needs to supply to meet statewide power demand. “Even if you don’t sell power back to the grid, distributive power would solve a lot of (consumption) problems,” she said.