September 23, 2011 (Alpine) –On the site of a run-down ex-chicken farm in Alpine, Sol Orchard wants to harvest sunshine.
Representatives from Sol Orchard seek a major use permit to build an 18-acre solar energy farm on High Glen Road, about four miles southeast of the Tavern Road and Japatul Valley Road intersection. Capable of producing 2.5 megawatts (MW) of power, the project is all part of a new San Diego Gas & Electric initiative to build small-scale solar facilities that together would generate up to 200 MW power locally.
At last night’s Alpine Community Planning Group meeting, a presentation by Sol Orchard sparked questions from area residents, though a hard limit for meeting’s end required the agenda item to be continued until a future date not yet announced.
Photovoltaic cells that rotate north-to-south would capture the sun, maximizing exposure. DC voltage would be converted underground to AC voltage, then transmitted via ordinary transmission lines—not Sunrise Powerlink.
One key advantage for Alpine: the power would be utilized locally in Alpine, not sent elsewhere, Will Pritchard of Sol Orchard told ECM. Producing local power could help improve reliability in the event of a future event such as the Arizona incident that led to the recent region-wide blackout.
“If we’d had an extra 200 MW two weeks ago, we probably wouldn’t have had that cascading effect that led to the blackout,” Pritchard suggested.
Some residents raised concerns over aesthetics and views. “It’s not compatible with our rural area,” one woman said. “Once this is in, that whole area will go industrial.”
Pritchard said any future projects, like this one, would require a multiple use permit on the land currently zoned agricultural. The project for civic use is not incompatible, he said. He added that the area is remote and would not be visible to residents from the north. “Most houses in the valley won’t see it,” he added. But planning group member Shannon Self, a Carveacre resident, indicated her property will overlook the area, which will soon have Powerlink towers in addition to possibly a solar farm.
Chairman Greg Fox stated that the town of Boulevard has filed a protest with the California Public Utilities Commission after four solar farms were planned for their community. “They are not thrilled, he said. Initially he indicated he didn’t see a benefit to Alpine and guessed power would go elsewhere. But a Sol Orchard spokesman explained the power will go into a substation that feeds Alpine and will not be transmitted elsewhere over the Powerlink. “All this power goes into your community.”
This project is much smaller than the massive proposed desert solar farms, some of which would cover thousands of acres. Unlike Boulevard, which already has several wind farms built or proposed and multiple solar farms on the planning board as well as above-ground Powerlink lines, Alpine has no major energy producing projects. The Powerlink transmission lines are being undergrounded ni downtown Alpine, though not in outlying rural areas.
Fox asked if slats could be added to a chain link fence to help mask the project. “That can easily be done,” Sol Orchard’s representative assured, noting that the existing “view” at the site includes flat metal chicken houses.
One potential advocate for the project is Laura Cyphert, cofounder of the East County Community Action Coalition—one of three groups that has taken legal action to oppose Sunrise Powerlink.
“This is the opposite of Sunrise Powerlink,” she said. “I firmly believe that if you’re against something, you should be for something else.” Smaller scale solar projects such as this one, unlike Powerlink, use existing distribution lines. “This doesn’t take public lands,” she said. “It’s fairly small; it’s six feet tall instead of 200 feet tall.” That’s also less visually disruptive than towering wind farms with turbines 500 or 600 feet tall.
The 200 MW envisioned by SDG&E through small-scale solar within our county would produce only about a tenth of the power transmitted over Powerlink and produced elsewhere. But added to other local energy sources, such as rooftop solar that Supervisor Dianne Jacob and others hope to see consumers and businesses eventually allowed to sell for use in the power grid, projects such as this one could significantly reduce our region’s dependence on power produced outside San Diego County.
Though stopping short of approving the specific site, which she said should be up to the residents in Alpine, Lakeside resident Cyphert said regional small-scale distribution of energy could ultimately reduce our region’s dependence on power from elsewhere by meeting most power needs locally. She said she wouldn't mind living near a small-scale solar facility and sees a civic responsibility for everyone to help reduce our region gain energy independence.
“If every community put a project this size in, if everyone took some responsibility,” she concluded, “it would be such a good thing.”