Sonoma County takes closer look at green energy projects

  • Dave Hood, the CEO of Coldwell Solar, stands next to the site of the company's proposed 22.6 acre solar farm site near the intersection of Frates Rd. and Adobe Rd. on Thursday, May 9, 2013 in Petaluma, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

With renewable energy development now a central issue in Sonoma County, disputed rules that would govern the size and location of green energy projects are returning to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday for approval.

The zoning changes, which focus largely on solar systems, would open up more land in unincorporated areas to commercial-scale projects, including agricultural, industrial and business parcels.

The first test case could be a 23-acre solar panel installation proposed for a hayfield outside Petaluma, a project prohibited under current zoning but allowed under the revised rules up for approval.

The new zoning would also ease generation limits on non-commercial renewable systems installed for homes and businesses and lift them entirely for systems covering roofs or parking areas.

Most who have weighed in on the rules agree such projects — in the developed, urban environment — should come first.

The main dispute has centered on where and how to allow energy development on a wider swath of the county's croplands, ranches and forested properties.

When the rules first came to the Board of Supervisors in May, that question divided key agricultural interests. Some favored strong protections against farmland conversions for energy generation, while others argued for flexibility and against a ban on projects in the county's highest-value cropland, including vineyards.

The issue has also presented environmentalists with a complicated choice between priorities that can be at odds — green energy development and landscape protection.

The debate — mirrored across the country amid the wider rollout of renewable energy projects — has been especially significant because of the pending launch of Sonoma County's public power agency, a venture built on the promise of local green energy generation.

Revisions to the proposed rules since May have favored farming and environmental groups that have argued for stronger regulations. The changes would put tighter limits on the size of projects on a vast swath of ranch- and forestland and allow for greater public input on the largest projects.

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