By Karen Brainard
Ramona may see a new kind of farm pop up on its agricultural land.
“Farming the sun” is how Sol Orchard LLC describes its business. Representatives from the Carmel-based company gave an introductory presentation at the Ramona Community Planning Group’s July 7 meeting about a proposed solar farm for property at 1650 Warnock Drive.
This type of farm met resistance from many planning group members who said the acres of solar arrays would not be aesthetically-pleasing on Ramona’s rural lands. They also questioned how the project would be funded and what the benefit would be to the community.
The purpose of the wholesale distributed generation solar project would be to produce energy and sell it to San Diego Gas & Electric, explained representatives from Sol Orchard.
Jeff Brothers, president of Sol Orchard, said his company has had 50 megawatts of projects approved by San Diego Gas & Electric at 19 sites.
“So we’re all over San Diego County at this point and time,” he said. “We build community solar projects.”
Utility companies have to start buying energy from renewable sources because of a state mandate. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill, SBX1 2, that requires utility companies to receive one-third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Will Pritchard, also with Sol Orchard, said the proposed project for Ramona would use between 45 to 50 acres of the 110-acre property at Warnock Road and Ramona Street, owned by hog farmer Mark Bousema. Sol Orchard would act as a tenant on Bousema’s property and pay rent.
The solar panels would be south and east of the existing buildings and pond, said Pritchard, and would be set back from the roadways. The maximum height of the solar panels would be about seven feet, he said.
The proposed project would be 7½ megawatts, roughly enough power for 3,000 to 4,000 homes in Ramona, said Brothers, adding that it would be noise-free, dust-free and use little water.
Pritchard said they are developing an application, but have not formally applied to the county for a major use permit.
Planning group member Eb Hogervorst said many solar companies have been going after farmlands in that area of Ramona. He said he was contacted about a year ago and knew of other landowners who have been approached.
“What is the key to this whole area?” he asked.
Pritchard responded that power lines follow Warnock Drive and Dye Road, and the area is appealing for the projects because it is an “ag intensive zone.”
Planning group member Matt Deskovick asked whether taxpayers are ultimately paying for the solar projects.
Pritchard said there are tax incentives for renewable energy projects.
“This project will help California as a state achieves its renewable energy goal” he said.
“So they’re (SDG&E) going to take all the power that you’re producing and sell it back to us,” said planner Kevin Wallace. “You haven’t explained what good this will do for the community, other than take up the land.”
Wallace said he is not against solar, but the proposed project would be a visual blight in the middle of the valley.
“San Diego Gas and Electric, are they going to cut everyone’s bill?” he asked.
Brothers said the primary benefit will be that the energy is produced locally and not shipped in from elsewhere, which could result in increased costs to build more transmission lines.
“This energy problem is an enormous worldwide problem,” said Brothers.
He touted Germany as having more solar than any other country and said the land is still picturesque.
Chris Anderson of the planning group had a laptop computer in front of her and said she googled information about Germany’s solar. Anderson said she found an article on Green Street Journal that said the government of Germany may cut the tariffs that utility companies must pay the renewable energy producers and it could spark a downturn in the solar market.
“Let’s watch Germany. See how they handle it,” she said.
Anderson acknowledged there is no pollution from solar projects, “but there is a huge visual eyesore on our beautiful ag lands.”
Anderson said she has a problem with the state mandate and suggested taking the solar farms to unpopulated areas. Noting that Ramonans have fought to keep rural lands, she asked if the projects could go on county land.
Patrick Brown, who works on renewable projects as a planner with San Diego County’s Department of Planning and Land Use, said he believes a project is being proposed for the Ramona landfill.
RCPG member Dennis Sprong said he isn’t against solar, but the concern about aesthetics and the farming culture is “because we’ve lost vast amounts of phenomenal farmland.”
Brothers told the planning group that he appreciated the environmental and the aesthetic perspectives. As it was only an introductory presentation, no action was taken by the planning group.
Brothers told the Sentinel that Sol Orchard plans to bring the project back to the planning group at a later date.