Guest Commentary: Not So Much “Community” in the BrightNight Solar Deal

by Matt Williams

Intentions and goals are only words unless they are accompanied by accomplishments, and when it comes to accomplishments, especially in the realm of renewable power, City Hall is very good at “talking the talk” but not very good at “walking the walk.”

That is a bold statement.  Is it factual?  The answer to that is “Absolutely!” and the evidence of how little actual accomplishment the City has achieved is illuminated by looking at a side-by-side timeline of the City and Yolo County from 2011 to present.

In 2011 the major accomplishment of the City was passing a resolution establishing a program (talk).

In 2011 Yolo County (1) engaged a fiscal consultant, (2) completed and presented to the Supervisors financing options for two solar energy projects that with no capital investment would provide the County with present value savings of $16.2 million . $36.9 million over 30 years. (walk, walk)

In 2012, Davis established a program goal to offer Community Solar to its residents, businesses and schools, but the program failed because Davis did not have a plan to navigate around the roadblocks set up by the CPUC and PG&E. (talk)

In 2012 Yolo County took action on its solar project, including: (a) approval of the detailed plan to eliminate all of its external power purchases from PG&E , (b) approval of various agreements with Pacific Gas & Electric necessary to implement the project, (c) preparation of appropriate environmental review documents pursuant to CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), (d) approval of a contract for the construction, operation and maintenance of the solar arrays to be placed at the solar facility sites, and (e) increased the present value savings of the project to $19.2 million ($42.8 million over 35 years).” (walk, walk, walk, walk, walk)

In 2013 Yolo County was designated as one of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s top 20 on-site green power users, coming in at No. 13. (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). Since then, all we have heard from City Hall is more “talk.”

That brings us to 2019-2020 and BrightNight.  In March 2020 the City Council Majority with Lucas Frerichs in vocal dissent signed a land lease contract with BrightNight.

An actual leasing of land isn’t just talk, but the City very consciously chose not to actually lease the land, but rather to only grant an option to lease the land.  Further, they didn’t grant an option whose time duration equaled the two-year Cal ISO application approval process timeline…the City granted BrightNight a five-year option …at least twice what was needed.

If you can make sense of that, you are wiser than I am.  Of course, anyone can speculate.  One possible explanation could be that BrightNight sees a lot of uncertainty in their road ahead, so they asked for and got two and a half times as much Lease Option duration as was needed.

In my personal opinion, that very clear uncertainty signal by BrightNight, coupled with the fact that the Lease isn’t a Lease at all, but rather a Lease Option, makes this whole BrightNight situation just “talk” on the “talk to walk” continuum, or in the recent words of Governor Newsom … only a proclamation of a program rather than actually solving a problem.

The City of Davis is also capable of being very silent when they want to shut out the public from the decision-making / problem-solving processes.  Recently staff reported to the Utilities Commission that the BrightNight solar process actually started in February 2019 … 15 months ago.  The first time the public learned anything regarding solar was 12 months into that process, when Mayor Lee told the public that the Council Majority had decided to go forward with a contract with BrightNight.

A huge problem with that decision is that no matter how many times the Council labels the BrightNight project as “community solar” the fact remains that it is a “private sector solar” project.

If the City truly wanted “community solar,” when the idea first saw the light of day 15 months ago … in February 2019 … the City could have done exactly the same thing that Yolo County did, and produced a similar result … a solar project owned by the community, providing power to the community, eliminating all outside power purchases by the local government, and providing the community with at a minimum a present value savings of $19.2 million … $42.8 million over 35 years.

The City and VCE could have collaborated on the project, knowing that instead of exporting the dollars to the private sector for profit margin and executive salaries and dividend payments, those dollars would have stayed in the community.  That is the real beauty of what Yolo County did.

As I said at the beginning of this article, “Intentions and goals are only words unless they are accompanied by accomplishments.”  The City of Davis may have had the goal and intention of a “community solar project” but what they actually accomplished was a “private sector solar project” … and a really bad financial deal for the City.

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About The Author

Matt Williams has been a resident of Davis/El Macero since 1998. Matt is a past member of the City's Utilities Commission, as well as a former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), former member of the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC), former member of the Broadband Advisory Task Force (BATF), as well as Treasurer of Davis Community Network (DCN). He is a past Treasurer of the Senior Citizens of Davis, and past member of the Finance Committee of the Davis Art Center, the Editorial Board of the Davis Vanguard, Yolo County's South Davis General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, the Davis School District's 7-11 Committee for Nugget Fields, the Yolo County Health Council and the City of Davis Water Advisory Committee and Natural Resources Commission. His undergraduate degree is from Cornell University and his MBA is from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent over 30 years planning, developing, delivering and leading bottom-line focused strategies in the management of healthcare practice, healthcare finance, and healthcare technology, as well municipal finance.

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  1. Ron Glick

    In Yolo County Supervisor is not an entry level political position while City Council Member is an entry level political position.

    This is a perfect example of the value that differential in experience brings. After two terms only CC member Frerichs, by voicing his dissent and his commitment to a competitive bidding process, has shown the growth in leadership skills required to move up.

  2. Tia Will

    I would like to add one more dimension to Matt Williams’s talk, walk continuum. That is “think”. We here have heard a great deal about governmental transparency and community involvement. However in this case, it appears that only Councilmember Frerichs stopped to think about whether this action met the precepts of transparency and community involvement before either talking or walking on the implementation of this project. Had the others taken the time to do so, I do not believe we would be where we are now.

  3. Dianne C Tobias

    Thanks Matt for your perspective.

    What is the current status of the BrightLights contract and your prediction for possible reversal?

    1. Matt Williams

      Dianne, it is too early to tell.  It is a work in process.

      With that said, BrightNight is symptomatic of much larger issues of serious dysfunction in our City of Davis government, as well as our inability as a community (City, UCD and County collectively) to collaborate and achieve win-win-win outcomes.

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