Betting that modest-sized solar projects, under 20 MW in size, can be sited, approved and built much faster than some of the mega-projects languishing on the drawing boards, PG&E just unveiled the first of these, a small 2 MW solar power plant about the size of a city block or two, on farmland just one exit North of Vacaville this morning.
To get there, I drove down a bucolic country road typical of rural Northern California, where hand-lettered signs offer organic eggs for sale, and locally harvested honey is sold at the produce stand near the Freeway.
The first thing I saw was a hare bounding away through the solar field. That’s when I realized that grass (or what passes for it in the parched California countryside) is being allowed to grow under the panels.
They are planting a native grass that doesn’t grow higher than the four foot bottom edge of the panels so they won’t have to mow it, PG&E told us.
The company has sat through enough permitting meetings to have learned to avoid the industrialization that kills so many potential solar projects. So they won’t be using pesticides and killing the vegetation. What grows there, grows.
The same grass munched by a few curious goats and a quartet of cows i saw along the country road leading there, will also be under the solar arrays.
The other lesson learned is that the scale of utility-scale solar can be intimidating. So the CPUC authorized a five-year plan by PG&E to develop up to 500 megawatts by implementing many small projects rather than a few big ones. The idea is that it is easier to site a lot of smaller less intrusive solar projects.
It seems to be working. Unlike the projects of outside solar developers that can get bogged down in two year reviews before dying altogether, PG&E’s project was approved and built in ten months.
Only six months was spent on permitting. Where feasible, these smaller projects developed and owned by PG&E will be built on land already owned by the utility or near its substations to minimize the cost and delays of interconnecting them to the power grid.
Building this one took just four months, even though California got its rainy season back this winter after years of drought, and so the construction and electrical teams including local union labor and disabled vets struggled through the rainiest November in decades to get the project out on time, and on budget.
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