RYER ISLAND — Barry Sgarrella stood on a Ryer Island levee at the intersection of highways 84 and 220. He looked down at what he hopes will be the site of a solar energy project on a massive scale.
He proposes a $2.5 billion project that would cover about 3.5 square miles with solar panels. He wants this Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta island to be home to a solar farm large enough to generate between 579 and 720 megawatts of electricity, enough to power a city.
“That would make it the largest PV (photovoltaic) solar plant in the world,” said Sgarrella, who is the chief executive officer of Marin County-based SolAgra.
Several county supervisors have made it clear they don’t want to see prime farmland lost to large solar projects that feed power to utilities. But Sgarrella says that’s not a choice that the county must make. He says a conventional farm and solar farm can co-exist.
Ryer Island is located in eastern Solano County about 2 miles north of Rio Vista. Although it has two state highways passing over it, both look like narrow, country roads with little traffic. The Real McCoy Ferry carries Highway 84 traffic over Cache Slough every 20 minutes.
This is a farming area behind levees, with crops ranging from alfalfa to corn to pears. Sgarrella says that SolAgra’s proposal won’t change this.
Solar panels would be 17 feet off the ground, Sgarrella said. That leaves enough room for a large John Deere harvester to drive under them, he said.
Panels would be positioned in the morning so that the light falls on the crops, not directly on the panels. That’s the time of day when energy demand is low, he said.
Later in the day, when energy demand is high, the angle of the panels would be good for generating electricity. Sgarrella said most plants don’t need full sunlight all day long. That much sun can lower the moisture content in crops such as alfalfa, he said.
“When we have peak demand in the summer, primarily air conditioning, (it) would be generating full blast,” Sgarrella said.
Former county Supervisor Mike Reagan, a consultant on the project, went further than saying that solar and agriculture can co-exist on Ryer Island.
“Actually, if we do it right, we’ll be enhancing agriculture,” Reagan said.
Meanwhile, the farmers who lease land for such projects have a new source of income, he said. In Solano County’s Delta region, some of the money could be used as matching funds for grants to repair levees that hold back Delta waters.
SolAgra has a lot of people to convince if the project is to become a reality. Interested parties in Solano County include the county Planning Commission, the county Agricultural Advisory Committee, the Solano County Farm Bureau and the Solano County Board of Supervisors. There are also regional agencies such as the Delta Protection Commission.
Solano County recently proposed banning commercial solar facilities from farmland zoned for 40-acre and 80-acre parcels, which consists of 265 square miles with the county’s most fertile soil. Such a law would exclude Ryer Island from having a large solar farm.
The Solano County Planning Commission is to hold a hearing on the proposed law for commercial solar farms at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Government Center, 675 Texas St. in Fairfield. A staff report calls for delaying the issue to a future meeting.
Sgarrella said he’s working with the University of California, Davis to show that a commercial solar energy farm and agriculture can co-exist. He’d like to have a pilot project of a few acres on Ryer Island to convince the county.
Ryer Island is in Supervisor Skip Thomson’s 5th supervisorial district. Thomson has talked to Sgarrella and called the proposed project “intriguing.”
The county recently banned all new, large-scale renewable energy projects for 10 months as it works on revised land-use policies to protect Travis Air Force Base and agriculture. But Thomson is open to a small pilot project such as the one SolAgra proposes on Ryer Island.
“I think that, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ would be my position,” Thomson said. “Maybe it would be the solar fields of the future.”
Sgarrella said projects in Italy, Japan and North Carolina have combined solar panels and agriculture. None of these are done precisely in the way SolAgra is proposing, which would take the concept several steps further.
“Our arrangement is completely different (from) anything else anyone else has ever done,” Sgarrella said.
But SolAgra is proposing more than a solar farm. That’s why it has targeted remote Ryer Island in Solano County for its project, instead of building in a sunny part of the state with no agriculture.
One problem with solar energy is that the output isn’t constant, which can cause problems for the power grid. Sgarrella wants a way to store the power to make the output even and available even when the sun isn’t shining.
“Ryer Island has some things that practically nowhere else in the state has,” Sgarrella said.
One of those attributes is abandoned gas wells underneath a clay soil cap. Sgarrella proposes to use an air compressor to store air underground. When needed, the air would be released to turn a turbine on the property and generate electricity.
Reagan said compressed air energy storage on Ryer Island could also be used to even out the energy produced by wind turbines in the Montezuma Hills of eastern Solano County. Wind, like sun, is intermittent.
“I actually think the storage is desperately needed for that,” Reagan said, as he pointed from Ryer Island to dozens of massive wind turbines some five miles in the distance.
Sgarella described himself as a third-generation developer who lives in Marin County and has a house on Twitchell Island in the Delta. He has built residential and commercial projects in the state.
He is partners in SolAgra with Peter Post of Panelized Structures and Panelized Solar of Modesto.
Sgarrella also described himself as an “imagineer” who likes to find interesting ways to fill needs. In future months, he will see if he can move the Ryer Island project from the realm of the imagination to reality.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.