By Gerald Braun
Despite a storm of criticism, the City Council’s decision to lease land to BrightNight for a new Community Solar project makes sense if looked at through the lens of the city’s long-standing intentions and goals. Proper and effective collaboration between City staff and Valley Clean Energy (VCE) merits commendation as well.
In March 2011, building on the City’s successful partnership with PVUSA, the Davis City Council approved a resolution to support and sponsor a bill to establish a pilot program to allow local governments, businesses, residents and schools to invest in cost-effective retail solar electricity.
The bill’s sponsor, Senator Lois Wolk, expanded her proposed legislation to authorize a statewide “Community-Based Renewable Energy Self-Generation Program”, aka Community Solar. SB 43 went into effect nearly three years later, authorizing 600 megawatts of Community Solar capacity statewide, including 20 megawatts in Yolo County. Regrettably, implementation by the California Public Utility Commission relied on plans submitted by PG&E and other incumbent utilities that were too costly to implement on a local basis.
It did. In 2013, with the help of the Valley Climate Action Center, the City secured a $300,000 grant from the California Energy Commission to develop integrated renewable energy and residential energy efficiency programs, plus strategies for local renewable electricity production and low/zero carbon building retrofits.
Project results included an inventory of potential sites for Community Solar projects. Analysis presented in the final report showed how a combination of on-site and community scale solar and wind projects could almost completely “decarbonize” personal and commercial building and transportation energy use in Davis between 2015 and 2035…but only if the City took full or partial responsibility for its own energy services and related programs.
In 2015, the City started work to get Valley Clean Energy (VCE) up and running in Yolo County to empower local renewable resource development. With VCE now able to contract for long term renewable electricity supply, it will have the opportunity to consider projects aligned with the City’s goals, plans and past expenditures of time, talent and money over ten years.
BrightNight needed a suitable site for a cost-effective project to respond to a pending Valley Clean Energy (VCE) solicitation for local renewable resources. There is every reason for confidence in VCE staff’s ability to evaluate bids. There is no reason a project meeting VCE’s needs could not also supplement the limited amounts of solar power produced by PVUSA and delivered to the City. BrightNight is appropriately experienced and should now have a clear view of City and VCE needs, priorities and concerns.
Unprecedented collaboration between the City and VCE made long-awaited progress toward Community Solar possible. Collaboration between energy service providers (e.g. VCE and PG&E) and cities and counties (e.g. Davis and Yolo) will need to increase a hundred-fold in the coming decade to push aside out-dated barriers to local climate action and adaptation.
Whatever projects VCE selects in its first round of local resource procurement, there are simple, low cost and common-sense ways the City can continue to up its energy and climate action game while addressing transparency concerns.
For example, assign a staff member able to engage with local energy experts and look to the City’s resilient and low carbon energy future. Clarify commission and committee responsibilities and authorities regarding local energy projects and planning.
Such adjustments will address underlying reasons for criticism of the City Council’s decision.
Gerald Bruan is an appointed member of both the Davis Utilities Commission and the VCE Community Advisory Committee