The Bay Area chapter of the nation’s most prominent environmental organization took the unusual step of silencing its smaller Tri-Valley Sierra Club group over public comments perceived as being hostile toward a solar power facility planned for hundreds of acres of farmland north of Livermore.
In a letter to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, two volunteer leaders with the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter and a senior representative for the environmental group’s statewide green energy campaign expressed general support for the Aramis Solar Energy Generation and Storage Project.
“On behalf of the Sierra Club, we write to clarify previous comments that have been made by the Sierra Club in regard to the Aramis solar and storage project,” the Aug. 18 letter said. “This letter is to supersede all previous comments made by the Sierra Club on this project, and Alameda County solar policy more generally.”
The Bay Chapter representatives insist the organization remains neutral for now, but the generally upbeat tone of the letter, which is devoid of critical analysis of the specific proposals, led some to believe it represented the Sierra Club’s stamp of approval.
As California ramps up large-scale solar power projects to achieve its aggressive renewable energy mandate, organizations like the Sierra Club are grappling over how to balance potentially conflicting goals of safeguarding wildlife habitat and greening of the electrical grid.
The Bay Chapter represents 40,000 Sierra Club members in San Francisco, Marin, Contra Costa and Alameda counties. The chapter is divided into eight local groups, including the Tri-Valley group, which keeps tabs on issues of concern in eastern Alameda County on behalf of the organization.
After the solar development companies SunWalker Energy of Oakland and San Francisco-based Intersect Power submitted permit applications to build large commercial solar installations within the Tri-Valley Sierra Club’s territory more than two years ago, the Tri-Valley group became active in the public review process.
The SunWalker project called the Livermore Community Solar Farm is a 6-megawatt facility on nearly 60 acres of land north of May School Road, east of North Livermore Avenue. Aramis project by Intersect Power is a 100-megawatt solar and battery storage facility planned for 580 acres adjacent to Cayetano Creek across North Livermore Avenue from the SunWalker installation.
Current chair of the Tri-Valley group Dick Schneider wrote detailed letters to the county planning department outlining concerns about the potentially significant adverse impact that both of the large industrial facilities could have on wildlife habitat, the scenic character of the area, agriculture and other resources. His letters urged more thorough environmental analysis and mitigation than were proposed by the developers, but did not take a position for or against the facilities.
According to the Sierra Club Bay Chapter, the larger chapter was only recently made aware of the Tri-Valley group’s environmental advocacy related to the projects.
The authors of the Bay Club Letter to the county supervisors said Schneider and the Tri-Valley group did not follow club policy before publicly commenting on clean energy developments, and therefore the group’s comments would not be considered the Sierra Club’s official view. Schneider declined to comment for this story.
In addition, the authors of the letter said they were unaware of the Tri-Valley group’s letters to the county concerning the Livermore Community Solar Farm until informed last week by The Independent. As a result, they said that they only commented on the Aramis Intersect Power project, not the Sun Walker Solar Farm project.
“Aramis will provide abundant solar power during the day in order to meet the demand necessitated by air conditioning in the county and will utilize a battery storage system that can be dispatched during peak demand to reduce reliance on (natural gas-fired power plants that are turned on when demand for electricity is at its peak and supply is running low),” read the letter signed by Igor Tregub, immediate past chair of the Bay Chapter and lead author of the letter; David McCoard, chair of the Bay Chapter’s energy committee; and Luis Amezcua, a senior campaign representative with Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, which fights to move California toward 100% clean energy as a solution to combat climate change.
The letter also noted that a labor contract between the developer and unions for project construction of the Intersect Power Aramis project will “put people back to work at a time when COVID-19 is devastating working families and their livelihoods.”
The clarification letter seemed to raise as many questions as it answered.
“So, I am confused, sorry,” Shawn Wilson, chief of staff to Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty wrote in an email in response to the Bay Chapter’s letter. The project is located inside the district Haggerty represents. “I thought the Sierra Club was against this project? Can you clarify for me please?”
The letter speaks for itself, was the answer tendered by its authors.
David Rounds, Friends of Livermore member, further questioned the Sierra Club’s concerns regarding labor.
“Why is the Sierra Club talking about doing a solar project to create jobs,” Rounds said. “Of course, creating jobs is a good thing, but this is ‘off mission’ for the Sierra Club of San Francisco Bay and a slap in the face to those who support the Sierra Club because of their environmental work and not for their work supporting jobs.”
The positive thrust of the Sierra Club Bay Area chapter’s letter prompted the project developer San Francisco-based Intersect Power to push out marketing materials for its Aramis project with the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay icon prominently displayed below a statement that the project’s benefits are being recognized by groups like the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club chapter later clarified that the endorsement was conditional upon the completion of an environmental study that ensures the project avoids or properly mitigates potential impacts.
“We wanted to make it absolutely clear that we are neutral at this time,” Tregub, the lead author of the letter said. “We generally are supportive of renewable projects, but we wanted to take a look at the EIR and review it.”