A solar farm proposed for the Cuyama Valley received the nod of approval from the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission on Tuesday after multiple speakers praised the project’s promises of jobs and clean renewable energy.
Planning commissioners recommended that the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors approve several matters related to the Cuyama Solar Facility, proposed for 327 acres at 596 Kirchenmann Road in the northeastern corner of the county. The vote was 4-0 with Fourth District Commissioner Larry Ferini absent.
First District Commissioner C. Michael Cooney noted he also was part of the panel to approve another alternative energy project, a wind farm for the Lompoc Valley.
“This project similarly has great promise,” Cooney said. “(It’s a) great opportunity for Santa Barbara County to join those other jurisdictions that have ventured into a large-scale solar field. We get the opportunity to learn about this and recommend it to the board of supervisors and its many facets.”
Commissioner Joan Hartmann, who represents the Third District, noted that the county received 57 letters of support for the project. She also expressed pride that she is part of the panel recommending approval of the clean energy project that will help efforts by not contributing to global warming.
“I’m glad First Solar is helping the county move forward,” Hartmann added.
The project would be able to generate 40 megawatts of electricity, which would generate enough for approximately 15,600 homes, according to applicant, First Solar.
Koryn Kendall, project development manager with First Solar, called the Cuyama Solar Facility “a very well-sited project.” The site is previously disturbed agricultural land about 2 miles south of Highway 166.
“It has minimal impacts to surrounding ag and landscape,” she said. “And it will provide significant benefits for the county and the community.”
Approximately 600,000 photovoltaic modules, 2 feet by 4 feet, would convert sunlight directly into low-voltage direct current. The modules would be mounted on steel and aluminum support structures in a horizontal tracking device that follows the sun. It will connect via the Cuyama substation.
“The project will supplement the local power supply and we believe increase reliability in this area of the grid,” Kendall added. “Because our water use during operation is so low, the water currently being allocated to this site for irrigation can be reallocated elsewhere … .”
Susan Petrovich, representing Bolthouse Farms, said the farming operation views the solar project as an agricultural support facility. Cuyama can suffer power interruptions which can interfere with water well pumps and lead to lost crops during the peak irrigation season, she added.
“Adding power to this local grid provides a safety net for Bolthouse crops along with those of other valley farmers,” Petrovich said.
Several speakers urged the commissioners to approve the project, which planning staff has worked on since 2011.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect energy project, but this project is very close,” said Jefferson Litton of the Community Environmental Council.
Others including union representatives touted the potential for jobs. Up to 200 people could be employed during the construction of the solar farm.
“I think this is a project can all be proud of,” said Chuck Huddleston from a local chaper of IBEW.
With 500 members, the union has seen 50 percent of them be unemployed.
“This will put my members to work in Santa Barbara County,” Huddleston said, adding a local hiring agreement is in place with First Solar.
Santa Barbara Audubon Society representatives expressed concerns about the project’s potential impacts, and called for the installation of powerline markers to avoid accidentally electrocuting California condors.
They also were worried the solar panels would look like a vertical lake, fooling birds into thinking the facility is a body of water.
Audubon Society co-president Steve Ferry listed a number of steps he suggested be taken to make the project more acceptable, including adding features to accommodate burrowing owls.
County Planning Commission members agreed to some of the requests, including adding requiring powerline markers.
A number of recommendations by the Planning Commission were required for the project to move forward. With the commissioners giving their support Tuesday, county staff estimated the project will go before the Board of Supervisors this fall.
The proposed project requires amendments to the Comprehensive Plan and Land Use Development Code (CP/LUDC) to allow utility-scale solar photovoltaic facilities on up to 600 acres of land designated Agriculture II (A-II) or Agriculture Commercial (AC), and zoned AG-II, in the rural area of the Cuyama Valley. Some parcels need to be rezoned to accommodate the facility.
In connection with the project, proponents are seeking to cancel the Williamson Act contract for 167 acres. But the remaining 1,362 acres would be re-enrolled into a replacement contract to keep the land in agriculture uses.