Petaluma joins solar revolution

A large solar power plant was christened outside Petaluma with promises of more local renewable energy.|

Geof Syphers got in his Chevy Volt Tuesday morning, like he does most days, and headed to the Sonoma Clean Power office in Santa Rosa.

Later that morning, he traveled south to the Lavio family farm in west Petaluma and drove to the back of the property where about 4,000 solar panels had been installed earlier this year. They were generating one megawatt of electricity, enough to power 300 homes.

One of those homes belongs to Syphers, a Cotati resident and the CEO of SCP. His electric car is charged solely by the sun’s energy, and it was the kind of commute Syphers is hoping will become a mainstay for residents throughout region.

“Building inside Sonoma County has been a goal from the beginning,” Syphers said. “This is the first (solar project) that we have finished. So one of the things that excites me is just being able to see this through, all the way from the plan through the construction and see it finally serving customers.”

This week, SCP and developer Coldwell Solar hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony at one of the two solar power plants recently constructed in Petaluma, the first of their kind for the nonprofit electricity provider for Sonoma and Mendocino counties. The event was attended by local officials, Coldwell and SCP staff and members of the Lavio family.

Some two dozen rows of solar panels have been erected on undeveloped space behind the former dairy farm, quietly humming as they generate sustainable power along the lower slope of a hillside, completely hidden from nearby D Street.

The other plant is located in east Petaluma off Stage Gulch Road. Together, the two megawatts generated can power up to 600 homes by funneling the electricity through the PG&E grid to SCP customers using their EverGreen service, a premium package that comes from 100 percent renewable sources like these solar arrays.

SCP program specialist Nelson Lomeli said SCP currently has 1,643 EverGreen customers - 182 of them are in Petaluma.

“These projects will feed the electricity grid, so anybody in service would be able to take advantage of that electricity,” he said.

Uncovering project sites like these two are a rare occurrence in Sonoma County, Coldwell CEO Dave Hood said. Even with all the open space and clear skies, developers have to cut through all sorts of red tape - not to mention find locations that have the proper utilities set up so they can connect to the power grid without disturbing the land.

Coldwell has properties throughout the state, and Hood estimated they’re producing 1.2 gigawatts of solar power, which amounts to about 1,000 sites the size of the two plants in Petaluma.

Key to finalizing this project was SCP’s feed-in tariff program, or ProFIT, that allows landowners to lease their under-utilized space to generate utility-?scale solar energy.

Once Coldwell located the two sites in Petaluma, it entered into a Power Purchase Agreement with SCP, selling the energy to the electricity nonprofit for the next 20 years. That means the Lavio family will be able to reap the benefit of that deal for two decades without having to ever lift a finger.

“I like to look at it this way,” Hood said. “Before the solar was there, that power was just going into the ground. Now we’re harnessing that.”

Petaluma has long been a hotbed for rooftop solar projects, and the appeal of SCP’s solar programs could very well attract more rural landowners to take advantage, bringing more renewable electricity to residents that want to take part in a sustainable future.

“Our goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in general,” Lomeli said. “That’s our big drive, and do that for all the communities in our service territory. Our electricity supply is already super green, but every piece counts.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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