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Davis, California

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

City Council moves forward on new solar-farm plan amid some controversy

Councilmembers approved plans to lease city land for 235-acre solar farm, but many complained about approval process 

The Davis City Council proceeded with plans that would allow for leasing public land to the energy company BrightNight on March 24, with plans to use the site and build a 235-acre commercial solar farm and testing facility. Some members of the council and the public, however, expressed skepticism toward these plans, as well as the process through which the plans were approved. 

In February, the renewable energy company BrightNight approached the city with an unsolicited offer to lease unused county land, according to Assistant City Manager Ash Feeney. The proposed site is adjacent to the city’s wastewater treatment plant on County Road 28H, close to the Yolo County Dump. The land was formerly occupied by ponds used to purify the city’s wastewater. Recent upgrades to the city’s treatment plant eliminated the need for these ponds, leaving the land unused, according to the staff report. Feeney presented to the council during the March 24 remote council meeting.  

The staff report encouraged the council to approve the project. The unused land did not bring in revenue, according to the report, and leasing it would result in a net-positive fiscal impact for the city. Preliminary estimates of the plans suggested that the solar farm would bring in roughly $80,000 in city revenue per year, once it was up and running.   

Moreover, the staff reports claimed that the new solar farm would help the city meet its own sustainability goals.

“The proposed solar panels, which are estimated to be able to produce about 25 megawatts of solar power per year, will help the City meet its climate goals under the City’s 2020 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan Update which calls for the City to be carbon neutral by 2040,” the report reads. 

There was implied urgency for the council’s vote in the staff report — pending approval from the council, BrightNight would apply for connection to the California Independent System Operator (ISO), the non-profit body that manages the majority of the California electric grid. The deadline for this application was April 15, according to Feeney, but BrightNight wanted to apply by April 1 to allow a two-week window for feedback on their application. Missing this deadline, according to Feeney, would push the application process back another year. 

Though the entire council expressed support for the spirit of the proposal, Mayor Pro Tempore Gloria Partida and Councilmember Lucas Frerichs voiced concerns about the approval process. Due to COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, March city commission meetings had been canceled. Consequently, the solar-farm proposal was not reviewed or vetted by commissions as it might have been during ordinary circumstances.

Frerichs also argued that the city should solicit other proposals before approving BrightNight’s to ensure the city was getting the best deal possible. 

“We’re responding to someone that came in the door,” Frerichs said. “They may have a very good proposal in front of us, but I think that we are doing ourselves a disservice — if this is such a good proposal — by not comparing it to other proposals that may exist.”  

Much of public comment on the matter — which was submitted via email, due to Zoombombing issues earlier in the meeting — also urged the city to wait on approving the plans until further review and further study by city staff and relevant commissions, such as the Utility, Finance and Budget and the Open Space and Habitat Commissions. 

Councilmember Will Arnold, however, argued that the council should act quickly on approving the deal, calling BrightLight’s offer to buy the land a “bird in the hand.” He disagreed that it would necessarily be better to wait for a better deal or committee review. 

“I don’t get the sense that we’re going to be in a much better and more informed position a week from now, or two weeks from now, if we allow for more process and recommendations that we may or may not be able to act on,” Arnold said. 

Mayor Brett Lee agreed, pointing to the significant amount of clean and sustainable power the solar farm would provide to Davis and other communities. 

“What I think is being lost here, is this is a very exciting opportunity,”  Lee said. “In spite of the COVID-19 issue, the reality is we face a long-term issue regarding greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. With a stroke of the pen tonight, we literally can have 25 megawatts of generating power for our community or located adjacent to our community.” 

Councilmembers Arnolds, Partida and Lee and Councilmember Dan Carson voted to approve the project, while Frerichs voted against it. The council’s approval allows BrightLight to apply for the ground lease for the project. After the company secures entitlements from the county, including compliance with CEQA, the proposal will return again to the council for a vote, according to the staff report.  

Written by: Tim Lalonde — city@theaggie.org


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