Alameda County planners are soliciting public input on a green energy developer’s application to construct a sprawling solar farm and battery power storage facility on 580 acres of mostly grazing land about 2 miles north of Livermore.
Environmental review for the ambitious proposal — known as the Aramis Solar Energy Generation and Storage Project — is set to begin this week with a May 28 public hearing on the scope and content of a pending environmental impact review (EIR). To read the full staff report, visit https://bit.ly/Indy_SolarStaffReport.
The project, backed by Intersect Power, LLC is spread across four privately owned parcels of farmland the company plans to lease west of North Livermore Avenue at May School Road. A portion extends north of Manning Road and east of North Livermore Avenue. The combined properties cover 780 acres, with a total project development covering about 580 acres, according to the county.
The developer is offering to dedicate an easement to the county or Livermore Area Recreation and Park District for part of the land along Cayetano Creek to serve as a public hiking trail. It also pledged to enhance the aesthetics of the project for neighbors and passersby with a planted vegetation buffer. Panels will be set back 50 feet from North Livermore and Manning Roads, according to the application.
About 30 acres of the Aramis project site are covered by the Williamson Act, contracts with the county that keep property taxes in exchange for preserving the land for agriculture or open space. The applicant has committed to develop the project in a way that would ensure viable commercial bee and sheep operations and to allow regular access when grazing conditions are favorable.
The county’s environmental consultant is set to provide a presentation on the proposed scope of work for the EIR, followed by an opportunity for public comments.
If built, the power plant’s battery storage system would be designed to accept up to 100 megawatts of electricity, enough energy to power 25,000 homes and businesses. Electricity could then be dispatched to the grid during times of peak demand. The locally generated renewable energy could serve East Bay Community Energy, Clean Power San Francisco and PG&E customers under a long-term contract.
The project will add perimeter security fencing, large buildings and overhead lines with at least a few dozen poles — some reaching heights of up to 100 feet. Project construction would last nine months and draw up to 400 workers daily during the peak work period expected to last about five months.
Some residents of the rural residential neighborhoods north and east of the project have voiced opposition to the location, saying miles of cyclone fencing and thousands of solar arrays blanketing the landscape will degrade the existing visual character and quality of the surroundings and negatively impact wildlife and agriculture.
Similar tensions have surfaced between area residents and SunWalker Energy, the developer of an unrelated proposal to install 268 rows of solar arrays on about 60 acres directly across North Livermore Avenue from the Aramis project.
Merlin Newton Sr., whose backyard on Bel Roma Road abuts the SunWalker project, said he worries the projects could cumulatively lead to contamination of the groundwater basin residents rely on for domestic and agricultural needs. He stated the projects are in conflict with portions of the county’s general plan that were intended to preserve the character of rural lands outside the urban growth boundary — specifically development restrictions in Measure D, the Save Agriculture and Open Space Lands Initiative, and the Scenic Route element of the general plan, which designates the stretch of North Livermore Avenue adjacent to both projects as a Scenic Rural-Recreation Route.
“They want to transform this area from a scenic route into basically a solar facility corridor,” he said.
The county’s general plan and zoning ordinance are silent on the question of whether large solar farms are allowed on agricultural land. However, the county’s planning staff believe the question was settled when it approved projects near Mountain House in 2008 and along the Altamont in 2011.
The entire project is in an agriculture zone, with the bulk of the project site designated large parcel agriculture by the East County Area Plan. Solar farms are considered comparable uses within the large parcel designation, which allow windfarms and related facilities, and utility corridors, according to county planners.
According to Intersect Power’s project site plan, from a distance, the project would appear as a muted, dark field of panels, similar to a body of water, only with comparatively less glint and glare. From a closer vantage point, viewers will notice grazing sheep and a vegetation buffer with native wildflowers planted along North Livermore and Manning roads.
Visual simulations of the plantings and the project’s impact on current views of open range lands, extending to the hills and mountains beyond, were not included with the 13-page Aramis project description circulated by Intersect Power.
Dick Schneider, chairman of the Tri-Valley’s Sierra Club and co-author of Measure D, said the two projects — and potential for more sprouting up around PG&E’s Cayetano substation — will significantly change the visual character of the area and exacerbate the loss of agriculture in the county as farmland is supplanted by solar panels.
More than 16,000 acres of grazing land in Alameda County were converted to nonagricultural uses between 1984 and 2016, according to state California Department of Conservation statistics.
“Pretty soon, that area is not going to have any agriculture at all,” he said. “It’s just going to have large scale power plants, and the character is going to change.”
The Aramis project seeks to retrofit an existing building and construct four new 18,000-square-foot structures, along with a lithium battery storage system where batteries are housed in several locking metal electrical enclosures on the southern end of the project.
It also calls for a new substation with breakers, switches, relays and other equipment needed to safely connect to an adjacent PG&E substation.
It would optimize power generation using strings of photovoltaic modules that pivot on a single axis to track the sun from east to west during the day. The modules would reach a maximum height of 8 feet, according to the project application.
Northern portions of the project are designated as resource management and a 400-foot-wide corridor on the project’s western edge along Cayetano Creek is designated as water management. The county generally does not consider solar facilities comparable with these designations.
A public hearing on the scope and content of the pending EIR is scheduled for Thursday, May 28, at 1:30 p.m., during a virtual meeting of the East County Board of Zoning Adjustments.
The county planning department’s deadline for written comments on the scoping process is 5 p.m. on June 5.