Juice: Sun Flowers and Power

By Published On: November 27, 2011

Close to my home in Davis near Sacramento is farmland that produces sunflowers, wheat, and sun power. A two-minute walk takes me to acres of freshly plowed farmland covered by Canada Geese gobbling up and giving thanks to the bounty left behind. A couple of miles to the east is a smaller plot of undeveloped land covered by solar panel arrays that send electricity to the grid that lights up shared meals. In the university town, the contrasting products are as welcome as a hot Thanksgiving feast. Elsewhere, agricultural acreage growing sunflowers and sun power, particularly on large swaths of land, are as welcome as feuding family members at holiday gatherings. The state’s drive to grow solar and other non-fossil sources of electricity to one-third of utility power supplies is clashing with another key state policy--protecting agricultural land. Tensions have been growing for the last couple of years because of the amount and quality of farmland potentially at risk. Pursuing large solar developments on valuable agricultural acreage has and will continue to face significant opposition, wasting time and resources and delaying implementation of the state’s 33 percent green energy goal set for 2020. There has been a surge of interest in sun power development in response to the state’s one-third renewables’ mandate and its climate protection law further promoting carbon-lite energy resources. Massive solar photovoltaic projects have been slated for public lands in the Mojave Desert, but recently there has been a shift in focus from public to private lands. Up to 100,000 acres of land is needed for renewable development to meet the state’s 33 percent alternative energy mandate. Undeveloped land, in particular agricultural land, is being eyed by developers interested in tapping into the expected renewable bonanza because it is at first blush the path of least resistance. “In the Central Valley and Imperial Valley in particular, developers are proposing large-scale solar projects at an increasing rate,” notes Harvesting Clean Energy, a report by Ethan Elkind, University of California research fellow. Controversy over Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposed solar projects proposed on private farm land in Fresno generated news reports last week. The sites are protected by legislation aimed at keeping farmland productive. This law, known as the Williamson Act, however, allows the use of eminent domain to avoid the Act’s land use restrictions. A solar farm proposed on farmland in the Panoche Valley in San Benito County has been stalled by opposition. The planned 400 MW project slated for 5,000 acres threatens ag lands and its associated critters. On its face, these moves to plant photovoltaic panels on large tracks of farmland appear to threaten our state’s cornucopia. But the reality is more complicated. That is principally because there is no agreement as to what farmland should be preserved, and specifically which sites are “prime” land and which are “impaired” and no longer farmable. Getting state and local stakeholders to agree on what lands are suitable for solar and other renewable development--based on soil quality, and water resource considerations--is about as easy as trying to get clashing relatives to calm down. The California Farm Bureau vigorously objects to planting solar projects on farmland, without regard to the quality of the acres at issue. It’s an organization well known for its opposition to development of any kind on farmland. The farm bureau doesn’t distinguish between developments, and “fervently” opposes a Wal-Mart or large solar installation, said Elkind. However, he acknowledged that the demand for land to meet the state’s renewable mandate is a real problem for the agricultural sector. Many solar developers and advocates have a myopic focus on the undeveloped lands close to transmission infrastructure. They often run roughshod in the early stages of development, irrespective of the quality of the land at issue and a project’s potential impact on critters. Solar development can occur on lands unsuited to farming--those that are contaminated, with no or limited water rights, and minimal species--and also close to transmission. In Kings County, thousands of acres of marginal land in the Westlands Water District are contaminated by naturally occurring selenium and have or are slated for being taken out of production. A massive solar project is in the works that could produce between 3,000 and 5,000 MW in the region, with insignificant impacts to critters expected. This Westlands Solar Farm is close to a PG&E substation and the high voltage lines would have to be upgraded to accommodate a large influx of solar energy. At this point, the lines could carry up to 800 MW of new solar power, according to Carl Zichella, Natural Resources Defense Council director of western transmission. “It is the sweet spot,” said Elkind. This is just one of many potential sites that can further the state’s renewable goals and policies to protect both fertile farmland and diminishing numbers of wild animals and plants. The state--after input by stakeholders--should categorize which ag lands are prime, marginal, or degraded. Stakeholders must be willing to have meaningful exchange to make way for an agreement as to which sites are suitable for renewable development from both environmental and economic perspectives. Farmland suitability for renewable development then should be ranked, with unproductive land that is close to transmission at the top of the list. Guidance by the state “should serve as the basis for expediting permitting among multiple agencies and entities for projects on lands that meet the criteria,” points out Harvesting Clean Energy. If the state fails to set clear parameters as to which lands are on or off limits, renewable developers, like feasting fowl, will soon head south to stay warm.

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