5,000 MW of Solar Power Envisioned on Westlands

By Published On: April 9, 2010

Westlands Water District and Sierra Club are advancing a unique plan to turn 30,000 acres of unusable agricultural land in San Joaquin Valley into a solar energy farm that produces as much as 5,000 MW of peak power. The district is discussing lease arrangements with several photovoltaic project developers, said Sarah Woolf, Westlands spokesperson. Because the land is disturbed, she predicted permitting could go quite quickly once Westlands strikes a deal. The land lies east of Interstate 5, near the Path 15 transmission line, explained Woolf. To move the power to market, she said, some transmission upgrades would be needed to interconnect any project to the grid. Sierra Club--which has disagreed with the district over water policy in the past--is supporting the new use of the land because it would advance renewable energy without damaging wild land in the desert area, said Carl Zichella, western renewable energy program director for the environmental organization. “The mitigation burden would be zero in all likelihood,” he said. “You couldn’t pick a better spot.” Westlands, which owns some of the acreage, and private farmers, who own other parcels, are retiring the land from agricultural use because it’s become too contaminated with salt to farm productively after years of irrigation, according to Zichella. For photovoltaic projects, Westlands would act as the lead environmental review agency because the California Energy Commission would not have to issue any license. CEC licenses only thermal power plants. Zichella said Pacific Gas & Electric and the California Integrated System Operator already are planning some transmission upgrades in the area that would help move Westlands power to market. The upgrades are designed to enhance energy storage capabilities at the utility’s nearby Helms pumped storage facility (Current, April 2, 2010). Utilities and regulators are examining more extensive upgrades, added Zichella, who noted power from Westlands could flow anywhere in the state. The question in moving forward is whether the advantages of the site--fast permitting and ready access to transmission and power markets--will save developers enough money to make their projects more economical than those slated for the desert, where the sunshine admittedly is more intense, according to Zichella. While only a resource assessment can answer that question, Zichella thinks the savings will prove great enough to propel projects forward on the old farmland. Meanwhile, Westlands has no timetable for announcing any projects, according to Woolf, who would only say that discussions between the water district and unnamed solar developers continue. Westlands acreage that could be converted to solar energy production can no longer be farmed because a layer of clay under the top soil prevents irrigation water from draining down. This causes a buildup of salt in the soil, making it unsuitable for farming. Westlands, which began irrigating the land in the 1960s, has been unable to obtain federal drainage service for irrigation runoff because of concerns that the salt in the water would contaminate waterways and harm wildlife. The Westlands district lies east of Interstate 5 from around Mendota on the north to Kettleman City on the south.

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