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Environment, Energy and Transportation

Humboldt Solar Project Tests ‘Agrovoltaic’ Concept

Solar panels that make up the Public Service Company of New Mexico's new 2-megawatt photovoltaic array in Albuquerque.

A new solar power project in Humboldt County is following a trending land use concept – mixing energy infrastructure and agriculture.

The agriculture-zoned project site, located near the city of Blue Lake, will host a 26-acre solar array. It’s expected to produce four mega-watts of power a year, enough to provide electricity to 1,200 homes.

The project is the county’s first test of what’s known as “agrovoltaic” planning, the idea that solar power arrays can co-exist with agriculture.

Cattle grazing on the project site won’t continue but the plan is to switch to smaller animals, such as sheep. A beekeeping “pollinator meadow” will also be created as part of the project.

A permit for the project was discussed and approved at the county Planning Commission’s April 1 meeting.

County Planner Joshua Dorris said the solar array will consist of 14,000 panels with a maximum height of eight feet.

The project is a milestone in the county’s quest to expand locally-generated power with renewable sources. It’s also a first effort in what a written staff report describes as “a growing understanding that agriculture and photovoltaic systems can effectively co-exist.”

“This is somewhat charting new waters,” Dorris told commissioners.

The project has gained substantial support but the county has also fielded written and videoconference comments on potential visual and noise impacts.

Dorris displayed pre- and post-development renderings showing minor visual changes to the project site. The panels will track the position of the sun through motor-driven mechanisms which create minimal noise, he said.

Traffic impacts will be also be minimal because the only employees onsite will be those who do maintenance checks six times a year.

The permit applicant, Renewable Properties, LLC, has done solar projects throughout the country. Aaron Halimi, the company’s president, noted that state law requires 100 percent of electric retail sales to be sourced from zero-carbon sources by 2045.

“Everyone needs to do their part in California,” he said.

During a public comment period, some people who live near the site questioned whether alternative locations such as brownfield sites could be used and said a chain link fence surrounding the site would create visual impact.

There was also some doubt about whether the agricultural use will be enough to comply with a “no net loss” policy.

But comments were mostly in support of the project. Energy researcher Jim Zoellick, who helped the county develop its General Plan Energy Element, said the project is “exactly the type of project that the Energy Element intended to encourage.”

He added, “For us to mitigate our carbon footprint, we cannot just purchase renewable energy from outside the area.”

Cathy Chandler-Klein is looking forward seeing the solar array.

“For me, when I see the solar panels out there – hopefully – they will be quite beautiful because what I will see is an alternative to the impending ravages of climate change,” she said. Solar energy advocate Kit Mann recalled the county’s denial of the Terra-Gen wind energy project in late 2019 and said that it “kind of said to outside energy developers that maybe we weren’t ready for alternative energy projects.”

Rejecting this one would “set a disastrous precedent in that large green energy projects would be very hesitant to come to Humboldt County because we are not a welcoming community,” he continued.

Most commissioners did welcome the project, with Commissioner Brian Mitchell declaring that “we are in the middle of a climate emergency” before he made a motion to approve its conditional use permit.

Commissioner Mike Newman cast the only dissent vote. He had asked Halimi if overhead power transmission lines can be undergrounded and was told that it would trigger a major redesign and significantly delay the project.

The solar-generated power will be fed into the grid and managed by the Redwood Coast Energy Authority, the county’s energy agency.