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Healdsburg floating solar—a good idea then and now

“When the City of Healdsburg unveiled our floating solar project in 2021, it was the largest floating solar project in the United States, generating about 8% of the City’s electricity needs. Not only did our floating solar project exceed our expectations in providing our community a reliable & affordable long-term source of clean energy, it also provided a huge improvement in the water quality of the ponds it floats on. I’m proud of our city in finding creative ways to take real action in moving the needle towards a cleaner future for our community.” —Vice Mayor David Hagele*

I was asked at a recent Climate Action Healdsburg meeting to retell a personal story about a not-so-wild idea I’d shared at a city council meeting:

When my husband and I moved from Graton to Healdsburg in 2001 I regularly attended city council meetings; public participation was sparse in those days. One particular night the wastewater treatment facility manager reported a perplexing problem they had with duckweed overgrowth on their treatment ponds.

As an activist back in Graton I’d helped form a locally controlled sewer district. The Graton sewer treatment plant had grappled with duckweed a few years earlier.

Duckweed in the Russian River. Amie WIndsor photo.
Duckweed in the Russian River. Amie WIndsor photo.

Duckweed is not all bad but when it proliferates in a still recycled water storage pond it can lower dissolved oxygen, cause anaerobic conditions and spikes in fecal chloroform.

Graton tried various low-tech fixes, including labor-intensive duckweed skimming. As we brainstormed, the biologist and two engineers landed on an idea to shade the pond with free-floating rafts. I asked, “could we add solar panels to the floats and generate energy to power the facility and possibly the town of Graton?”

The idea generated a lot of excitement — I even designed a Graton Solar log o— but, In the end, the project proved too formidable for our small district, and we controlled the duckweed with a cheap blue dye additive called Aqua Shade.

But I was still in love with the solar idea, so when the Healdsburg City Council asked for public comment that night, I popped up to the podium and suggested shading the pond with floating solar panels and creating a giant solar array. Then I waxed on about the benefits: in addition to clean energy generation, such a project would displace duckweed, reduce water evaporation, reduce algae growth, deter waterfowl, and bring fame & fortune to Healdsburg! I knew the idea was innovative and sound but nevertheless was surprised when the staff listened with great interest. What happened after that I don’t know.

As an artist, not an engineer, sustainability and systems thinking had become a habit, and asking, “How can solving this one problem create an opportunity for added benefits?”

Our ideas matter. We miss an opportunity to participate in solutions when we sit back and blame or assume we must be experts to speak up. Attitudes around shared decision-making are shifting. The City Council, City Manager Jeff Kay, Assistant CM Andrew Sturmfels and their staff welcome input. Everyone holds a piece of the puzzle.

*David Hagele, is Healdsburg’s Vice Mayor, was Mayor in 2019 and among other duties, serves as the representative to the Northern California Power Agency (NCPA)—Commissioner/Past Chair. Watch for a future in-depth floating solar article.

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