More than 230 acres of city-owned land near the wastewater treatment plant could become home to a commercial solar farm and solar-energy testing facility under a plan approved by the City Council last week, but not everyone is happy about the process that led to the councilâs approval.
The solar company BrightNight approached the city earlier this year about leasing 235 acres of land just east of the Yolo County Landfill on County Road 28H. That land used to provide space for ponds to clean and purify the cityâs wastewater but those ponds are no longer needed thanks to upgrades to the wastewater treatment facility.
During a closed session in February, the council authorized the city manager to move ahead with a preliminary agreement with BrightNight that could ultimately result in $80,000 in annual revenue for the city.
Under the terms of the agreement the council approved last Tuesday, the city would receive about $5,000 per year during the next five years while BrightNight secures entitlements for the solar facility and once the ground lease is executed and the facility built, the city would earn up to $80,000 annually.
Additionally, the proposed solar panels, which are estimated to be able to produce about 25 megawatts of solar power per year, will help the city meet its climate goals under the 2020 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan Update, the staff report prepared for Tuesdayâs City Council meeting noted.
And while all five City Council members praised that aspect of the deal, concerns were raised by two â Councilman Lucas Frerichs and Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Partida â about a process that bypassed input from city commissions, in part thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shelter-in-place order that has led to all commission meetings being canceled during the last month.
Partida and Frerichs werenât the only ones objecting to the process, though; a number of people weighed in during public comment last Tuesday â comments made via email due to challenges encountered during the councilâs Zoom video-conferenced meeting.
Several urged the council to hold off on approving the agreement and have it vetted by the Utilities, Finance and Budget, and Open Space and Habitat commissions.
Frerichs and Partida did as well.
âWhy is not possible for the Utilities Commission to weigh in on this item?â Frerichs asked city staff.
He also questioned why the city did not issue a request for proposals for use of that land rather than just accept BrightNightâs proposal.
Assistant City Manager Ash Feeney said timing was the main reason for not taking the proposal to city commissions. The window for BrightNight to submit an application to the state is April 1-15, Feeney said, âand my understanding is if they âŚ miss that window, itâs another year before theyâre able to submit again.â
As for not issuing an RFP, he said, âthis came in as an unsolicited offer that we brought to council for a response.
âFrom a negotiation standpoint,â said Feeney, âwe feel the lease rate we were able to negotiate is competitive.â
Council members Will Arnold and Dan Carson expressed their support for the plan, with Carson noting that a 25-megawatt facility could âprovide clean energy for about 16,000 homes.â
âThatâs a pretty significant impact,â he said.
Arnold, while acknowledging concerns by Frerichs and others that âthere could be some other better deal out there on the horizon,â called the proposal âa bird in the hand.â
âAll of these requests either to prolong the process or forego it entirely and start from scratch with an RFP are predicated on the belief that something better will come along and I think thereâs danger in that,â said Arnold. âSomething better may not come along and that was my belief before the economy started crashing all around us.
âI think now a bird in the hand is worth maybe more than just two in the bush at this point because if we were to start an RFP process right now, who knows whether other companies are willing to take the type of risk that this company is willing to take.â
âIâm excited about this project,â Arnold added. âIâm excited to be a part of it.â
Partida said she agreed âthis is a good opportunity,â but said, âI would at least like to see it go to the Utilities CommissionâŚ because this is what we have those commissions for, to ask some questions and give some feedback.â
She added that she would be more comfortable having the commission review the proposal in time for BrightNight to go forward by the mid-April deadline.
Mayor Brett Lee agreed that having the proposal go before the commission would be ideal, but noted that âpretty much all of our commission meetings were cancelled last month.â
However, he said, many of those commission members emailed the council their questions about the proposal and the council was subsequently able to get answers âwhich I have found to be very helpful.â
He echoed his colleagues about the opportunity presented in the BrightNight proposal.
âWe face a long-term issue regarding greenhouse gas emissions,â the mayor said. âAnd with the stroke of the pen tonight, we literally can have 25 megawatts of generating power for our community located adjacent to our community.â
Additionally, Lee said, âwill receive roughly $80,000 a year in income from this land, which is currently unused. This is exciting. This is a giant step towards Davis taking a lead and addressing our carbon neutrality goals.
âSo in spite of the fact that I would have much much preferred this go to the (Utilities Commission) for their advice to us, I am comfortable tonight, given the fact that there is this April 1-15 window, that we go ahead and approve this tonight.â
Ultimately Lee, Carson, Arnold and even Partida voted in favor of the agreement.
Frerichs, who voted against it, noted that he is âjust as excited as anyone else about the prospect of more local solar generation. Thatâs not in question.
âBut I personally think that this process is not quite a good one. This is in part about trust in a process that engages the community and the process matters,â Frerichs said. âI do think there is absolutely still an ability for it to go before the Utilities Commission for a decision and still allow for BrightNight to be able to submit their application in a timely manner to the state.â
Additionally, he said, âI still have major concerns as to why we are not following a typical request for proposals process which is a very typical process that all local governments employ, including the city of Davis on contract after contract after contract, project after project after project.
âI asked why âŚ and the response was we had an unsolicited offer the council had to respond to and that was the full extent of the response as to why we didnât choose an RFP process. I think this represents potentially a good deal for the city,â said Frerichs, âbut I think there are others out there that might also represent a good deal and potentially a better deal for the city and I donât just suggest that for the sake of delaying thisâŚ it is a process we typically employ.â
Tuesdayâs vote by the council will not be its final action on the matter. Once the ground lease with BrightNight is finalized, it will be brought back to the council for approval after BrightNight has secured all of its entitlements from Yolo County, including compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, and can proceed with the solar project.
âÂ Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy atÂ [emailÂ protected]Â Follow her on Twitter atÂ @ATernusBellamy.