ALAMEDA COUNTY -- Even at the eastern edge of the Bay Area, where power lines crisscross a sprawl of nearby waterways and browning rural land, location is a hot commodity.
Spurred by California's mandate that all utilities produce 33 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020, solar companies hoping to harness the sun's energy have eyes on flat land just west of Mountain House near the San Joaquin County line. It is a prime location next to transmission lines and substations.
At least four applicants showed interest in that area of Alameda County last year. They proposed building solar energy facilities -- ranging from 14 to 2,000 acres -- on prime farmland, prompting members of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to ask their planners to begin work on a policy to guide development.
"It seems to be the place to be if you want to be in the solar market," said Albert Lopez, planning director for Alameda County. "It is that part of the county that is fairly sunny and hot a good chunk of the year. It is also pretty flat."
PG&E predicts that its solar production will balloon from 1 percent of its renewable sources in 2010 to 40 percent by 2020, PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said.
County supervisors did approve two facilities in the area before the policy planning began. Together, the two projects took up about 154 acres in the area and were considered capable of producing 13 megawatts.
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The area of focus for the new policy is south of Byron Highway near Kelso and Mountain House roads and takes in about 2,000 acres of prime farmland.
After more than a year of the county's staff working with landowners, ranchers, environmentalists and solar facility developers, the policy is at least another year away.
Thursday, at a county supervisors' Transportation/Planning Committee meeting, a very rough draft was presented to committee members and Supervisors Nate Miley and Scott Haggerty. Both said the priority should be to save prime farmland and put such solar facilities on land that won't affect agriculture.
"We are trying to avoid 2,500 acres being covered up," Haggerty said at the meeting, at which he and Miley agreed more work must still be done before any amendment to the general plan begins. He said the county needs to explore ways to put more solar farms in urban areas, for instance, on rooftops.
Ranchers, farmers and environmentalists echoed similar feelings during four community meetings held since January.
Environmentalists are concerned about the loss of open space and the effect the facilities could have on the bird population, already hurt by Altamont wind farms just west of the popular solar site.
With solar panels covering so much land, ranchers and farmers fear a loss of workable acreage on which to produce food or agricultural products.
"It is interesting that when we talk about things like where to locate these (solar) facilities, where food comes from never really seems to get addressed," said Darrel Sweet, a fifth generation rancher with about 1,000 acres near Livermore and chairman of the Alameda County Agricultural Advisory Committee.
Most of the 2,000 acres attracting the attention is protected through the Williamson Act, a state law enacted in 1965 that preserves prime agricultural land and open space by offering landowners property tax relief if they leave the land as is for a minimum of 10 years.
Cool Earth Solar, the most recent and largest solar project approved by the county in the area, chose a plot of land not governed by the Williamson Act and is the process of building a 140-acre facility in two phases that will eventually produce 10 megawatts, enough energy for 7,000 homes.
"The density of existing power lines and substations (in the area) is useful because we can put the renewable power onto the grid without creating new transmission corridors," Tony Chen, director of business development for Cool Earth Solar, wrote in an email to this newspaper when the project was approved in March.
The rough draft of Alameda County's solar facilities policy presented to the Transportation and Planning Committee put a limit of 1,000 acres on a proposed solar farm area, and says the Altamont wind farm area should be off limits to solar.
Supervisor Haggerty suggested looking at land north of Livermore and east of Vasco Road, where there's little prime agricultural land, but where there are no transmission lines.
"We need sources of clean, renewable energy, and there are no qualms about that," said Michael Gatzman, a member of the county's Agricultural Advisory Committee. "But we also have to protect the integrity of the food system."
Contact Robert Jordan at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/robjordan127.
In April 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown signed SBX1-2 into law, requiring all utilities to produce 33 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
PG&E predicts that by 2020, 35 percent of its renewable portfolio, which includes solar, wind and other alternative forms of energy, will come from solar. In 2011, PG&E's renewable portfolio made up 19 percent of its bundled retail sales, with solar making up 1 percent of that. By 2020 its numbers will improve to 33 percent renewable, with solar making up to 35 percent of its renewable energy.
PG&E currently has 28 power purchase agreements throughout the state, and just one in Alameda County, the GreenVolts project.
Breakdown of PG&E's 2011 portfolio of renewable energy, which made up 16 percent of PG&E's total bundled retail sales:
Solar: 1 percent
Small hydro: 19 percent
Geothermal: 26 percent
Bioenergy: 23 percent
Wind: 31 percent
Projected breakdown of PG&E's 2020 portfolio of renewable energy, making up 33 percent of total bundled retail sales:
Solar: 40 percent
Small hydro: 8 percent
Geothermal: 14 percent
Bioenergy: 15 percent
Wind: 23 percent
Source: Pacific Gas & Electric