Guest Commentary: Community Solar for Davis

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.

Davis had a goal to offer Community Solar to its residents, businesses and schools.  Did Davis have a plan to navigate around the roadblocks set up by the CPUC and PG&E?

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


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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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3 Comments

  1. Richard McCann

    Unfortunately, this article makes at least one key mistake. 

    I testified at the CPUC on behalf of the City and PVUSA on implementing SB43. The RFO that VCEA issued did not conform with the Community Solar requirements under SB 43—its just general wholesale bulk power. So it won’t deliver the benefits that are identified in the article.

    Another key issue is that research in to City’s handling of the BrightNight lease option has not uncovered any evidence of cooperation between the City and VCE to create a project that met the SB 43 requirements. So none of this “unprecedented collaboration” actually happened.

    The heart of this dispute is failure by the City to use a transparent, open process that would have avoided these and other problems that foresake most of the available benefits to City residents from this type of project. Why build new solar if all its going to do is deliver us the same results that we have now?

    Here’s Part 1 of a 4 part series I coauthored on how the City failed to deliver the full set of benefits that were available for the BrightNight project. https://www.davisvanguard.org/2020/04/guest-commentary-citys-faq-on-the-brightnight-lease-option-is-misleading-and-factually-incorrect-part-1/

  2. Matt Williams

    I respect Gerry Braun a lot, and what he has described in this article is a solid timeline of how the City of Davis is very good at “talking the talk.”  To see how good the City of Davis is at “walking the walk” one need only look at the same timeline from 2011 to present for the County of Yolo.

    March 2011 … the City of Davis passed a resolution (talk)

    March 2011 … the County of Yolo engaged a fiscal consultant (walk), and in April 2011 the consultant reported to the County an “analysis of the options for financing solar energy projects at the Cottonwood and Landfill Sites. […] Our goal was to … bring more focus to financial solutions and risk.” (walk)

    At the May 17, 2011 Yolo County Board of Supervisors meeting, the General Services Deputy Director, along with financial consultant Government Financial Strategies, presented a solar energy financial plan that with no capital investment would originally provide the County with present value savings of $16.2 million … $36.9 million over 30 years. (walk)

    In 2012, as noted in the article, “Davis had a goal to offer Community Solar to its residents, businesses and schools.  Did Davis have a plan to navigate around the roadblocks set up by the CPUC and PG&E?” (talk)

    July 2012 … the County of Yolo Board of Supervisors “took several actions in connection with the proposed project.  The actions included (a) approval of a Memorandum of Understanding between the County and the Yolo County Office of Education, (b) approval of various agreements with Pacific Gas & Electric necessary to implement the project, if later approved, (c) preparation of appropriate environmental review documents pursuant to CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), and (d) authority to continue work on reconveyance of a portion of Grasslands Regional Park (about 30 acres) for the solar energy facilities at that location.” (walk)

    October 2012 … the County of Yolo Board of Supervisors “Adopted a resolution authorizing the Chair of the Board to sign a contract with SunPower Corporation, Systems for the construction, operation and maintenance of solar arrays to be placed at Grasslands Regional Park and Beamer & Cottonwood sites. (walk)  “Staff and our consultant have recently refined the financial strategy for solar implementation and have generated a better strategy which will result in present value savings of $19.2 million ($42.8 million over 35 years).” (walk)

    In 2013, as noted in the article, “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.” (talk) NOTE: I am a member of the Board of the Valley Climate Action Center, and fully support the pursuit of and receipt of the CEC grant … and the really good work that resulted. (but it is still only talk in the walk-talk continuum).

    In late 2013 Yolo County, meanwhile, was designated as one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top 20 on-site green power users, coming in at No. 14. (walk)

    In 2015, the City started work to get Valley Clean Energy (VCE) up and running in Yolo County to empower local renewable resource development. (definitely walk … by both City of Davis and County of Yolo)

    ============

    Shifting gears a bit, the City of Davis is also capable of being very, very silent when they want to shut out the public from the decision-making process.  After much wailing and gnashing of teeth, staff informed the Utilities Commission in the last three weeks that the BrightNight solar process actually started in February 2019 … 15 months ago.  The first time that the public was informed that anything was going on was 12 months into the process when Mayor Lee told the public that the Council (in fairness to Lucas Frerichs, the Council Majority had made a decision to go forward with BrightNight.

    That brings me to the point in Gerry Braun’s article that I agree with most, “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.” Gerry clearly wants that, but 8 years of City of Davis history would appear to indicate that the City has no intention of taking Gerry’s advice.

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