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Large solar projects coming to Petaluma

Petaluma, long a hotbed for rooftop solar electricity projects, is about to take renewable energy generation to the next level.

Two area landowners are embarking on projects to build 1-megawatt solar arrays, which will be able to power 300 homes each. The projects are the first of their kind under a program from Sonoma Clean Power, the electricity provider for most of the county.

The so-called feed-in tariff program provides incentives to encourage property owners to install large solar and other renewable projects. Rocklin-based Coldwell Solar planned to break ground this week on the two projects south of Petaluma — one off D Street, and the other off Lakeville Highway.

Nelson Lomeli, program specialist for Sonoma Clean Power, said the rural Petaluma area, with an abundance of open ranch land, is well suited for these types of projects, the first since the power agency launched in 2014.

“A lot of it might have to do with the availability of land,” he said. “It also has good solar exposure.”

One of Sonoma Clean Power’s goals is to spur the development of local renewable energy projects, said Gabe Kearney, a Petaluma city councilman and representative on the Sonoma Clean Power board. The public agency procures power from sources it claims are greener than those of for-profit utilities. The power is delivered over the PG&E-owned electric grid.

The agency so far has contracted to purchase electricity from large solar projects around the state and has a project to build floating solar arrays on Sonoma County Water Agency wastewater ponds. The Petaluma projects represent the first private landowners to tap into the feed-in tariff program, in which they will lease the land to Coldwell Solar. The company will build the project and sell the power to Sonoma Clean Power.

“The more folks we have to do these type of projects, the more we can create renewable energy,” Kearney said. “Getting more folks in general on renewable energy is important. It’s a win for the community and a win for the environment.”

Kate Kelly, Sonoma Clean Power’s director of public affairs, said that the power generated by the feed-in tariff projects will be added to an electricity package called Evergreen, which is generated from 100 percent renewable sources, mostly geothermal. Customers pay a premium for the Evergreen package, she said.

“This is the first of these projects breaking ground for us, so it’s really exciting,” she said.

Coldwell Solar, which has an office in Petaluma, expects to complete the 4-acre projects and start selling power by the end of the year, according to Tom Cooper, director of utility development for the company. He said the company has a 20-year agreement to sell electricity generated from the projects to Sonoma Clean Power.

Th D Street project site was a former dairy, Cooper said. He said it is difficult to find suitable land for these types of projects in Sonoma County since much of the land is planted with crops and neighbors sometimes object to ground-mounted solar arrays that block their views.

“The challenge in Sonoma County is to make these not obtrusive visually,” he said. “These sites seemed to be good for that. It’s a good opportunity for the landowner to generate some revenue.”

Bea Charles owns the D Street property, where a project groundbreaking will be held Aug. 31. She said her father, Leo Lavio, who passed away in 2016, began planning for the project three years ago. She said the project is a benefit to her family and the community.

“I feel the solar field is a win-win situation for all involved. Not only does it help Sonoma Clean Power meet their goals of purchasing locally-produced clean power, but it also helps our family farm take its first steps towards sustainability and also ease the burden of generational transitioning,” she said.

“I will admit though, that it is a little scary and sad to see one of our quite little corners of the ranch change into a field of metal and glass, but I have learned that it is sometimes necessary to make sacrifices in order to preserve something greater that you care deeply about.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)