Some of the ways the Biden and Newsom administrations are addressing rising temperatures and aridity from climate change include supporting alternative energy development through various financial incentives and budgeting hundreds of millions of dollars for “vegetation fuel management.”
These federal- and state-supported climate change projects bring promises as well as important questions, such as how can local climate change projects also work to conserve and sustain our region’s native flora?
Recent siting issues with large alternative energy projects in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, as well as the uptick in vegetation treatment projects on our public lands, provide timely opportunities for CNPS and the Bay Area public to promote “multiple benefits” from local climate change projects. In this short article, we’ll focus on proactive planning used by one county to help find sites for solar facilities that both reduce carbon emissions and conserve biodiversity.
Contra Costa County is zoned for solar facilities; Alameda County, not yet
A decade ago, CNPS East Bay and other environmental groups asked Alameda County to work on a policy for determining how sites for large-scale solar facilities would be chosen. It didn’t happen. Then in 2021, along came a proposal by San Francisco-based Intercept Energy to construct Aramis, a several-hundred-acre solar facility in the north Livermore Valley, an area protected as open space though the 2005 Measure D citizens’ initiative. The project passed the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments, but that approval was then appealed, largely by citizen groups. After 10 hours of public testimony, county supervisors unanimously voted down the appeal and gave the project the go-ahead. The need for a solar facilities policy in Alameda County is now being discussed after approval of this huge project.
It has been a different story in Contra Costa County. Foreseeing the need to locate solar projects away from environmentally sensitive lands and onto commercial rooftops and less-sensitive land, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors recently adopted a Solar Energy Facilities Ordinance.
However, this year the Contra Costa County Planning Commission voted 4-3 to approve a 77-acre solar generation facility on property near Byron. That location not only was outside of the areas the county had zoned for solar facility development, but also was on land identified by the nonprofit East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservancy as a high priority for acquisition and preservation due to its ecological significance.
Since the Byron property lies next to East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) lands, EBRPD and Save Mt. Diablo appealed the planning commission’s approval of the solar facility to the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. Our chapter and the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club also sent letters to the board of supervisors.
Representatives of EBRPD, Save Mount Diablo, and our CNPS East Bay Chapter appeared before the board to speak about the project’s conflicts with the county’s solar zoning ordinance, with the existing East Contra Costa County Habitat Conservation Plan, and with Contra Costa County General Plan policies that require protection of critical ecological characteristics of rangelands and limit development on hillsides. All five Contra Costa supervisors voted to reject the project in this location, thereby sending a message to future solar development companies that both carbon reduction and biodiversity protection are valued.
Developing alternative energy sources is essential in the face of increasing climate change, but there are choices in how it’s done. For instance, the California Department of Water Resources recently approved placing solar panels over a Turlock irrigation canal to measure both evaporation savings and the energy produced. Following the state CNPS lead, our chapter supports state and local government policies that direct solar installations onto warehouse and shopping center rooftops, over large irrigation canals, and on less-sensitive lands to increase alternative energy generation in ways that also conserve native flora, fauna, and our treasured open spaces.
— Jim Hanson, Conservation Committee Chair, CNPS East Bay Chapter