Down on the (solar) farm
Local duo spearhead attempt to build solar farm in Chico
David Gallo, a recently retired professor of environmental and energy economics at Chico State, is frustrated. Despite attempting to contact Chico City Council members, including two emails to the entire council, regarding a potential Chico photovoltaic project called a solar farm, he hasn’t received a response. “Not a word,” he said.
Gallo included in his emails a 13-page detailed analysis—which he co-wrote with his neighbor, Tom Hall, who has a background in construction—on why the city should be getting ready to build a large-scale solar farm.
“I don’t think they see the upside yet,” said Gallo, in a recent interview that included Hall. “If you tell them that you can halve the utility bills of 3,000 residents … plus generate a quarter-million dollars a year in revenue for the city, maybe they’d be interested.”
Gallo and Hall want Chico to take advantage of Senate Bill 43, a California bill recently signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The bill, titled the Green Tariff Shared Renewables Program, would allow for a total of 600 megawatts’ worth of renewable-energy projects to be built in California, making the energy available for customers of utility companies, including the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Under the program, Chico could sign up to build a 20 MW project on 100 to 120 acres of city-owned land—the equivalent of more than 6,500 3-kilowatt individual rooftop projects—and sell the energy to PG&E. Chico residents could then purchase a share, which would give them a set monthly portion of that electricity from PG&E at a fair price set by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Shareholders would receive a PG&E bill only if the they used more energy than the monthly rate credit to which they subscribed.
The program’s allotted 600 MWs are split between California’s three investor-owned utilities: PG&E, Southern California Edison Co., and San Diego Gas & Electric. Within PG&E’s portion, another handful of MWs are earmarked for low-income projects.
“If you’re not ready to go, you’re not going to get your place in line,” said Gallo, who estimated that, after the low-income projects, fewer than 10 city projects of 20 MW size will be available for approval by the CPUC. (Applications are due to the CPUC by March 1, 2014.)
Although he is unsure how many other cities are ready, he says he is aware of “several cities in the San Joaquin Valley” who are interested, although he declined to specify which ones. Gallo is currently consulting for other California cities interested in joining the program, and is offering his consulting services for free to his hometown, should a council member call him back.
The project “would provide significant benefits for the city, its residents (and businesses), the local economy, and the global environment,” according to Gallo and Hall’s analysis. Renters and residents with shady roofs can tap into solar for the first time by directly purchasing 100 percent renewable energy without having to produce it at their home site, although any resident of Chico may participate.
Hall and Gallo concluded that the project would create an estimated 88 two-year construction jobs. Savings for shareholders would be immediate, as the cost for generating solar is significantly less than the conventional-utility average. Additionally, an estimated $12,000 in electricity savings over 25 years, per subscribing household, may result in more spending, thus bettering the local economy.
Plus, if city-owned land is used, “the city can implement a land-use charge,” generating significant revenue for the city, Hall noted.
The environmental benefits are numerous, too, as solar customers will be choosing 100 percent renewable energy over PG&E’s portfolio of energy, which includes getting 25 percent of its energy from out-of-state coal-fired plants, according to the analysis, which points out that a “25-year total reduction in CO2 equivalents is just under one-half million tons.”
The large up-front costs of building the solar farm, which Gallo estimates to be around $60 million before federal tax credits, can be offset by grants, he said.
Project placement—where to put 100-plus acres of panels—can be difficult, as economies of scale require one site rather than multiple sites to keep project costs
down, and it is important to find a location that will inflict minimal damage on local ecosystems.
Gallo is recommending a portion of the 750-acre Bidwell Ranch property off Wildwood Avenue in east Chico that is on lava cap, and not part of the acreage for which the city is attempting to create a conservation bank. However, the entirety of Bidwell Ranch, including sensitive vernal pools and lava-cap winter grasses, is currently zoned as primary open space, said Bob Summerville, a senior planner for the city of Chico. As such, a public-utility facility such as a solar farm would be prohibited, he said.
City Parks and Natural Resource Manager Dan Efseaff, speaking recently by phone, noted that the whole property is currently being evaluated for its role for inhabitants like the Swainson’s hawk and vernal-pool invertebrates, adding that he anticipates the lava-cap portion would still present “significant environmental constraints.”
Efseaff recommended other more “compatible” sites like the Chico airport; City Councilman Randall Stone independently also recommended the airport.
Stone—who said he still finds his life choices being impacted as a result of taking Gallo’s energy-economics course as an undergrad at Chico State—added, “I absolutely support a community solar project … but if it’s something that we absolutely have to do inside of this … fiscal year, then it’s not something we’re capable of doing,” due to the city’s lack of staffing, seed money and cash flow. Stone spoke by phone on the same day as the the city’s recent sweeping layoffs.
For his part, Gallo said he is open to other solutions, even if it reduced the size of the project, or Chico could not sustain a 20 MW program due to lack of participation. “[A] smaller project would still be advantageous, and would result in similar, but proportionately smaller benefits,” his and Hall’s analysis notes.
Despite possible hiccups, Hall and Gallo hold out hope that Chico will take advantage of the short window of opportunity. After all, says Gallo, “it’s just the right thing to do.”