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Solano board extends ban on large renewable energy projects

FAIRFIELD – Solano County has extended a moratorium on new, large-scale commercial solar- and wind-energy projects in rural areas for another 10 months with the stated goals of protecting Travis Air Force Base and farming.

The Solano County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved the extension by unanimous vote for the large renewable energy projects that feed utilities. It also added a new wrinkle – a ban on new wireless communication towers more than 200 feet tall.

Supervisors on Nov. 5 passed an urgency law putting the ban in place for 45 days, the longest term possible at the time. They have discussed extending the ban in increments allowed under state law until the county completes land use studies. Tuesday’s action was the latest step.

The moratorium isn’t a ban, it’s a timeout, Supervisor John Vasquez said. He mentioned the effects that large commercial renewable energy projects such as wind turbines in certain areas could have on Travis Air Force Base.

“The issue of encroachment, it’s an ongoing thing,” Vasquez said. “It’s like being pecked to death . . .”

He also mentioned the effects that large-scale solar projects could have on farming.

Supervisor Jim Spering said that at the end of the process, the county will have certainty on what sites can be used for renewable energy. He’s not for a permanent ban countywide, though he did talk of having a “clear zone” near Travis.

“Taking a timeout for a year to protect Travis Air Force Base and agriculture for future generations is something I think is reasonable,” Spering said.

Supervisor Skip Thomson supported the moratorium. But he didn’t want to rule out county staff working with a solar energy applicant on what might become a pilot project that could provide information to the county.

“My reason for wanting to look at this is it could set the standard for solar projects in Solano County,” Thomson said.

The county already has hundreds of energy-generating wind turbines in the Montezuma Hills between Suisun City and Rio Vista. There has been talk of building still more turbines, as well as building solar farms near Travis Air Force Base and on Ryer Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

But Travis Air Force Base last spring opened an assault landing strip for C-17 planes. It now has low-flying planes doing drills east of the base. Base officials have expressed concern about the prospect of 400-foot-tall wind turbines being built in this area.

In addition, base officials have raised concerns about glare from large commercial solar wind farms. There are also ongoing concerns about wind turbines affecting base radar.

Finally, county officials and farmers have expressed concern about losing prime farmland to large solar arrays.

Solano County plans to update its laws to address these situations. This includes updating the county’s Travis Air Force Base Land Use Compatibility Plan over the coming two years.

Former Fairfield Mayor Karin MacMillan urged the board to extend the moratorium. MacMillan was involved in a mid-1990s growth dispute, when she and other citizens fought to keep Fairfield homes from being built near Travis Air Force Base.

“I’m sorry I have to be here today,” MacMillan told supervisors. “I was hoping we wouldn’t have to deal with issues that might affect Travis again.”

Suisun City resident George Guynn said the moratorium should be permanent. He mentioned the estimated annual financial impact that the base has on the county.

“Let’s make this real simple – Travis adds about $1.5 billion to the local economy here,” Guynn said.

But Britta von Oesen saw the issue differently. She addressed the board on behalf of Gestamp Solar, which has proposed to build a solar energy farm on agricultural land a few miles from Travis Air Force Base.

Gestamp under existing state laws must prove it can mitigate for any adverse impact, von Oesen said. Travis Air Force Base hasn’t asked for a ban on solar facilities, she said.

“You’re simply sending a message to the industry that solar is not welcome,” she said.

Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, said in a letter that the county should evaluate renewable energy on a case-by-case basis. Nonreflective solar panels low to the ground are as unobtrusive to Travis planes as lakes and ponds, he wrote.

“While it’s clear that Travis Air Force Base has valid concerns over the expansion of nearby wind turbines and wind farms, all renewable energy is not created equal,” Tamminen wrote.

The county has been at the forefront of the green energy revolution, county Resource Management Director Bill Emlen said. It has allowed some 700 turbines in the Montezuma Hills, he said. He doesn’t see that commitment as changing, despite the moratorium.