McK eyed for giant solar farm


Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – A giant solar array that could produce enough electricity to power roughly 1,000 households may be installed at the California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport in McKinleyville.

The Redwood Coast Energy Authority is working with the county’s Aviation Division to study the feasibility of building the utility-grade solar power system at the county’s main airport.

Matthew Marshall, executive director of the energy authority, emphasized that the project is in the “extremely preliminary stages.”

The solar panels would be installed on metal racks and would cover two different fields totaling about 26 acres. Marshall said the seven megawatt system, which would cost about $15 million, would generate enough electricity to power roughly 1,000 households.

One of the big unknowns at this time, Marshall said, is whether it would be financially feasible to build a substation nearby to connect to Pacific Gas & Electric lines.  The energy authority plans to complete the feasibility study some time this summer.

If the substation turns out to be a deal breaker, then the airport could still consider a smaller array designed to meet its own electrical needs.

If the larger project turns out to be feasible, construction could take place next year, assuming the project is permitted and is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The electricity generated from the solar array would be used to offset the airport’s power cost, which is about $150,000 a year, according to Emily Jacobs, program coordinator for the county’s Aviation Division.

The excess electricity would be sold to the energy authority’s Community Choice Aggregation project, which will eventually give local residents the option of buying power from the energy authority. Billing would continue through Pacific Gas & Electric, which owns the transmission system.

Financial projections for the project, including how much revenue it might generate and how it would be financed, have yet to be completed.

While those details are being hammered out, Jacobs is in the process of amending the Airport Layout Plan to allow for the solar panels and other improvements at the airport. Jacobs came before the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee June 29 to discuss these changes and to get input.

Emily Jacobs gives a presentation to the McKinleyvlle Municipal Advisory Committee.

Emily Jacobs gives a presentation to the McKinleyvlle Municipal Advisory Committee.

The Airport Layout Plan is a document that the county updates every five years and that must be approved by the Board of Supervisors and, ultimately, by the Federal Aviation Administration. It consists of a map that shows proposed uses at the airport. If a proposed use is not designated on the plan, it can’t be built, Jacobs said.

The draft update of the plan includes three different locations for the solar panels – a 17-acre site located behind the fence west of Central Avenue between Grange Road and just north of Letz Lane, a nine-acre site north of Airport Road and east of Badsgaard Avenue, and a seven-acre site where the airport maintains lights and other aviation equipment northeast of the intersection of Central Avenue and Norton Road. This last site was recently added to the plan and has yet to be included in the energy authority’s preliminary designs.

Members of the McKinleyville advisory committee voiced support for the solar project and the changes to the Airport Layout Plan.

However, some members of the committee said they wanted to preserve as much industrial land as possible and would prefer if the solar panels were located somewhere other than the 17-acre site along Central Avenue.

“I’ll be on record feeling that it’s nice to preserve that industrial opportunity there next to Central Avenue,” committee chair Ben Shepherd said at the meeting.

Committee member John Corbett agreed. He said he recently compared commercial and industrial capacity in McKinleyville to Arcata and was “shocked” to learn how much more Arcata has.

“Arcata hit it out of the park,” Jacobs responded, noting that Arcata set aside the industrial lands two to three decades ago.

“They had to put the investment in and they had to sit on it for years and years and years,” Jacobs said. “But now it’s really paying off for them, so it’s definitely some really well though-out long-term planning.”

Although the committee would like to have the Central Avenue property saved for industrial uses, members were told later in the meeting that the site’s uses are limited. Jacobs said that the security fence cannot be moved, so whatever businesses that would use the site would have to be aviation related. There are also height restrictions for any proposed buildings.

Jacobs said the airport is also pursuing other projects. She said the airport is investigating the possibility of building an air freight warehouse, which would double as a disaster shelter.

Having a freight facility could attract more aircraft to the airport, she said. And in a major disaster, the airport is an ideal location for a shelter because it has emergency communications equipment, a backup generator, fuel reserves and the U.S. Coast Guard station.

Another project the airport will be pursuing in the coming year or two is the removal of some trees northeast of the crosswind runway.

The Federal Aviation Administration has rules regarding the height of objects beyond the ends of the runways, even when the trees are on private property.

The airport, Jacobs explained, has the authority to require the landowners to remove the trees, but “we would never want to be that kind of neighbor.”

Instead, the airport will contact the landowners and give them different options, she said. The landowners can remove the trees themselves, or the airport will pay someone to do it. The logs can then be chipped, split and stacked on site, or taken to the Sheriff’s Work Alternative Program to be distributed as firewood for low-income seniors.

Jacobs noted that the Fed’s equipment for measuring obstacles is very sensitive and can pick up very small things.

Awhile ago, the FAA informed Jacobs that its equipment had discovered a large item near the airport’s main approach. Jacobs grabbed a GPS device, went out to investigate, then returned to her office.

“I came running back upstairs and I got on the phone with the FAA and I said “It’s just a bunch of naked ladies in the field. What’s the problem?” The pink belladonna lilies, common to the area, had bloomed near the runway.


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