Solar farm tries to move in town to be closer to consumers

Ben Irwin

Doe Avenue Solar Project squabbles with city council over land use

VISALIA – The Doe Avenue Solar Project suffered a setback at the hands of the Visalia City Council on Oct. 19. Ostensibly halting it’s progress to help provide renewable energy for qualifying disadvantaged communities nearby.

Specifically, the request to initiate a zoning amendment for the 7227 West Doe Avenue property—currently zoned for industrial use—to serve as a community solar farm was denied.

The request was defeated 3-2 when vice mayor Steve Nelsen, council member Greg Collins and council member Phil Cox voted down the request. At the Oct. 19 meeting, the council had been questioning the reasons for using the industrial-zoned land rather than agricultural land for the proposed solar farm.

The community development department’s recommendation was to deny the zone text amendment request, citing the staff’s reasoning as “that stand-alone solar farms are inconsistent with the type of uses encouraged in Visalia’s urbanized planning area, inconsistent with the purpose and intent…with surrounding industrial development, and do not bring any economic benefit to the industrial park and city as a whole.”

Staff added that stand-alone solar farms are better suited to agricultural zones, where they can benefit from land that may no longer be viable to grow crops due to water restrictions from the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Forty-two percent of the community solar farm project capacity would have been reserved for income-eligible Visalia residents within a five-mile radius of the project, 21% is targeted toward 127 households in West Goshen and 37% toward 222 households in Ducor.

However, Tulare County Farm Bureau executive director Tricia Stever Blattler said she does not support stand-alone solar to be put on prime agricultural land where farming could be a good profitable choice.

“We do not generally support solar on farmland unless that farmland is considered to be unfarmable,” Stever Blattler said. “If its an incidental use, meaning they are going to use it to continue farming that ground, adding [solar] for a winery, or any kind of purpose where they’re actually giving the benefit of that solar generation to help keep the farm a farming business, we certainly would consider that a valuable compatible use.”

Joe Henri, vice president of business development and new markets at Dimension Renewable Energy—one of three companies backing the community solar project—spoke during the Oct. 19 meeting on behalf of Dimension.

“We can reach families that otherwise have no access to the benefits of solar,” Henri said.

He explained the project further in a later interview with The Sun-Gazette and added that the project is a community solar program with Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison.

“It’s community solar for disadvantaged communities,” Henri said. “And a disadvantaged community is something that’s defined by the State of California as a community that ranks in the top 25% in terms of pollution and other disadvantages.”

Henri said the project must commit to serving at least half of the capacity of the project to low income customers. He said when they are signed up, they receive a non-negotiable guaranteed 20% reduction in their electric bill.

Dimension is partnered with GRID Alternatives, a non-profit based in Oakland, and Visalia-based non-profit Self-Help Enterprises. Self-Help is expected to work on ensuring the solar farm’s required workforce development program will serve local families that need it most.

“Our proposal was that we’re going to train between 10 and 12 people from the local area on the project to actually get real work experience building a solar project,” Henri said about their partnership with Self-Help.

As for the location on industrial-zoned land, Henri offered an explanation. He said while finding a landowner willing to sell for solar can be tough due to the lack of “fat” economically, Dimension has already secured a willing seller for the parcel at 7227 West Doe Avenue, where a SoCal Edison substation is just a few hundred feet away.

“We’ve got our interconnection study done, and we can interconnect at a reasonable cost at that location,” Henri said, “and if we go way out in the hinterlands out in the ag area? Sure, we might be able to find the land out there, but we’re going to spend millions of dollars upgrading the transmission lines to get back to that substation.”

Henri said SoCal Edison has a map of their distribution system which ranks areas green, yellow, orange and red in descending order of affordability.

“You go out to the ag areas, and it’s all red,” Henri said. “Which means you’re going to pay to [replace cable] for quite a distance, and that’s extremely expensive.”

Henri said he and his partners were excited to get this in front of Visalia City Council, but were disappointed when there appeared to be a disconnect due to a rush and lack of time to fully consider the community solar project proposal.

“It’s very different from the norm, from what people might have otherwise been thinking about solar. It’s a new thing, California hasn’t really got very much of this yet,” Henri said. “It brings some benefits that people haven’t really gotten to know… So we’re hoping for a little more education, a little bit more discussion, and we can help the council change their mind on that.”

Henri and his associates asked to be reconsidered by the Visalia City Council. If the request is approved at the Nov. 16 council meeting, the project would be placed on a future agenda for consideration. At the time of publication, the result of this request was not yet known.

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