County moves to loosen solar panel regulations

There’s enough private and public land in Santa Barbara County to install solar panels that could generate power for up to 1 million homes. But so far only a small percentage of this potential has been installed, according to a strategic energy plan that county staff presented to the Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 10 meeting. 

click to enlarge County moves to loosen solar panel regulations
SOLAR POWER: Santa Barbara County is moving to loosen solar panel regulations to stimulate more renewable energy projects within the county.

In September 2018, supervisors directed staff to engage Optony Inc. to develop the plan in collaboration with the cities of Carpinteria and Goleta.

County Senior Program Specialist Marisa Hanson-Lopez said the overarching goal of the plan is to determine the renewable energy resource potential within the county and conduct in-depth assessments of specific sites. 

“While solar is the most abundant resource, there is sufficient potential in wind, biomass, and biogas to justify further investigation,” Hanson-Lopez said. 

According to the presentation, solar projects in urban areas could primarily be installed on rooftops and carports. Hanson-Lopez said there’s potential in urban areas to generate enough power for 550,000 homes. The plan also looked at installing solar panels on agricultural land, which could generate enough power for up to 325,000 homes. 

These amounts represent a far greater capacity than what’s needed in the county, which has around 150,000 homes, along with commercial and industrial properties.

During the presentation to the county, Hanson-Lopez outlined three phases of recommended actions to stimulate the renewable energy development outlined in the plan. The first phase includes changing regulations to open up the areas where solar panels can be installed within the county.

Currently, large-scale solar projects in the county are only permitted in the Cuyama Valley. Staff recommended that the county create a utility-scale solar ordinance to expand the areas where large solar projects can be installed. This recommendation was already part of the county Planning Department’s work plan for this year.

Additionally, staff recommended the county look at potential changes to the way it enforces the Williamson Act. This state law enables local governments to enter into contracts with landowners to preserve agricultural land. Hanson-Lopez said the county could allow smaller solar projects on this preserved land as a dual-use project with shade-tolerant crops growing underneath. 

Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam was skeptical about whether or not this would be feasible for farmers.

“In my experience, if it’s grown in the shadow, it’s a mess,” Adam said. “And if you’re going to try and harvest a field and part of it’s in shadow and part of it’s not, it screws the whole thing up.”

However, a recent paper published in Nature Sustainability, based on the University of Arizona’s research, found that crops, such as peppers and tomatoes, could be grown in the shade of solar panels.

Supervisors approved staff recommendations to move forward with phase one by a 4-1 vote, with Adam casting the dissenting vote. In voicing his support for the measure, 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino said he wants to ensure that the county doesn’t get in its own way while loosening the regulations on solar panel projects.

“The less regulatory axle you can build that people can’t [be] wound around would be my preference,” Lavagnino said. “We all know what a solar field looks like; if it fits, it fits and then move on.”

—Zac Ezzone

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