The Alameda County Board of Supervisors’ two-member Planning and Transportation Subcommittee on Tuesday agreed to move forward with drafting a comprehensive county solar policy.

The Aug. 8 decision followed a recommendation by the Agricultural Advisory Committee, which recently adopted a resolution in support of adding a solar energy element to the county’s general plan. The policy will guide the development of solar electric facilities in rural areas of the county, particularly for large commercial projects planned for previously undeveloped agricultural land.

During the same meeting, the board also declined to follow the Agricultural Advisory Committee’s recommendation to stop processing applications for three utility-scale solar projects pending the adoption of a solar policy.

“I’m going to be clear,” said Supervisor Scott Haggerty, who chairs the committee. “I have no problem doing a solar policy; I have no problem with trying to get it done before December. But what I will say is that’s not going to apply to things that are already in the pipe. There’s a couple of projects I believe that are in the pipe right now that, quite frankly, we can’t change the rules on them. I don’t even know if that would be legal.”

Robert Selna, an attorney who represents Save North Livermore Valley — a group of landowners and environmentalists that formed to oppose two large industrial solar projects planned for farmland north of Livermore — disagreed with Haggerty’s suggestion that the county was obligated to continue processing the applications. He urged the county to hold off on approving the industrial solar projects until a comprehensive solar policy and general plan is in place.

“The final point that was brought up that you can’t apply a policy or general plan amendment to projects that are in the pipeline is just dead wrong,” he said. “That concept is called vested rights and a project doesn’t have vested rights unless they have a permit ... and they have substantially relied on the permit and spent money toward completion of the project. So that notion is incorrect.”

In recent years, at least two attempts were made to develop a county solar policy, resulting in draft policies that were never adopted. Most recently, a draft solar policy was presented to the Transportation and Planning Committee in 2018, but failed to advance to the full Board of Supervisors.

“There was just no way to get to consensus on it, and we decided to do it case by case,” Haggerty said.

Supervisor Nate Miley, who also serves on the committee, said he supports a solar policy study, and would like it to explore options for rooftop solar on agricultural buildings. He said he would also like to see a separate section of the study looking at maximizing solar development in urban areas of the county. He did not object to allowing the existing projects to move forward as the solar plan is developed. 

Joe Desmond, Livermore resident and former chair of the California Energy Commission, said he recognized there is merit in adopting a policy.  

“What I would tell you, having approved different projects over the years, is it is important to have clarity, such that both sides of a project — whether that is the developer (or) local citizens in the community — have clear guidance so that they can understand how the law is being applied; what the impacts are with respect to the EIR,” Desmond said. “To the extent that you do decide to develop a policy, I would recommend you separate utility-scale ... from those with residential or commercial buildings, since they are well covered under existing California law.” 

A draft solar policy is expected to be presented to the Agricultural Subcommittee at its Oct. 27 meeting, before returning to the Transportation and Planning Committee. Then it would go to the full Board of Supervisors for consideration late this year or in early 2021. 

Among members of the public addressing the county, Jean King, on behalf of Friends of Livermore, read a statement the group issued in favor of suspending solar development approvals until the completion of a solar policy.  

“The critical environmental issues of climate change and the need for more renewable energy need to be balanced with the issues protecting the values of Measure D, protecting open space, agricultural land, protected species, viewsheds and water,” she said. “The conditions need to be studied carefully, with input from the public.”

One speaker who did not provide a name joined the virtual meeting by phone. He agreed with Haggerty in that the county should not force the developers to suspend their project plans.

“When you’re dealing with these things on a case by case, that doesn’t stop you from going ahead and carrying out the promise that you made ... to produce a comprehensive solar policy. Please go ahead and produce one,” he said. "But in the meantime, you have to deal with these project proposals."