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County Adopts Ordinance for Commercial Solar Facilities Development

SANTA CLARA COUNTY, CALIF.— In anticipation of the growing number of commercial solar energy facilities in California, the Board of Supervisors approved amendments to the County Zoning Ordinance to provide development standards for solar energy facilities including thermal power systems and photovoltaic (PV) panel systems plants.

A solar thermal power plant uses hundreds of mirrors to concentrate sunlight for boiling liquid to produce steam that spins a turbine while a PV panel consists of a series of cells made from a semiconductor, usually silicon, which frees electrons to create an electric current.

“The new ordinance is a great step forward in the County’s sustainability efforts,” said Supervisor Don Gage, Chairperson of the County’s Housing, Land Use, Environment & Transportation Committee. “The provisions will guide development of the commercial solar facilities while protecting the landscape and wildlife in the area where applications for such facilities are expected in the future.”

The new ordinance provides size categories for a commercial solar facility and requires its compliance with the Williamson Act and the County’s Viewshed and Hillsides policies. The ordinance also provides a streamlined permitting process for smaller commercial solar facilities (less than 8 acres in size) in certain areas of the County that have less environmental constraints (important farmland and wildlife habitat). Other provisions in the ordinance include:

  • a 30 foot height requirement for a structure,
  • requirement for decommissioning,
  • designing facilities to allow for wildlife habitat and passage, and
  • drainage protection.

“The solar power industry is growing rapidly in response to recent State policies and programs for renewable power,” said Jody Hall Esser, Director of the County Office of Planning. “The new ordinance is an important element that will help us meet State requirements.”

In 2009, the Governor signed an Executive Order requiring energy providers in California to meet a 33 percent renewable energy target by 2020. To achieve this goal, considerable effort is required. Currently, only about 14 percent of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s (PG&E) retail electricity sales are generated with renewable power.

In California, many large PV and solar thermal facilities are proposed and under development in the southeastern part of the state. These facilities encompass over 300,000 acres and are expected to produce approximately 24,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity over their useful lives. A two MW system was recently constructed in Alameda County and a proposed 420 MW system in San Benito County is currently under review. The County of Santa Clara Office of Planning has received several informal inquiries about development of commercial solar facilities although no formal application has been submitted.

“As a leader in environmental stewardship, Santa Clara County is ahead of demand by welcoming solar facilities into our borders,” said Board of Supervisors President and California Air Resources Board Member Ken Yeager. “Renewable energy is a key component in California’s quest to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The County of Santa Clara has passed a series of ordinances related to sustainability since 2008 including the first phase of the Green Building Ordinance for single-family residences. In September 2010, the second phase of the Ordinance was passed and to expand the County’s Green Building policies to private property development of non-single family residential buildings in the unincorporated areas.

Media Contact: Gwendolyn Mitchell/Lingxia Meng, Office of Public Affairs (408) 299-5119; Rob Eastwood, County Planning and Development (408) 299- 5792
Posted: November 12, 2010