As energy planners and utilities look for ways to meet a California mandate that one-third of the state’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2020, developers increasingly look at productive farmland as sites for large-scale solar installations.
In one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions, the Central Valley from San Joaquin County to Kern County, about 33,000 acres worth of solar projects have been proposed to the California Energy Commission.
California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Taxation and Land Use, John Gamper, says most of the utility-scale solar projects would be built on farmland. Gamper says Farm Bureau does not oppose locating utility-scale photovoltaic solar projects on marginal or physically impaired farmland, but does oppose taking prime farmland out of production for solar development.
“What is important is we don’t allow this 21st century ‘Gold Rush’ to get out of hand and jeopardize our food security, our watersheds and habitat areas,” Gamper says. “We have to be thoughtful. There’s plenty of public land, desert land and non-productive farmland, so we don’t have to put large-scale solar on prime farmland just because it is close to a sub-station.”
Some Land Being Conserved
Much of the farmland targeted by developers has been conserved through the California Land Conservation Act or the Williamson Act. Some public officials have opted to take land out of the Williamson Act to install solar, including Fresno County, where the board of supervisors recently voted to remove 90 acres of prime farmland from its Williamson Act contract.
“There are some big promises being made,” says Fresno County Farm Bureau Executive Director, Ryan Jacobsen. “We have about 33 solar projects proposed for our Westside, and 17 are enrolled in Williamson Act contracts, so this is a big deal.”
Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau managing counsel for natural resources and the environment, says the organization strongly supports a landowner’s property right, but believes the integrity of the Williamson Act must be protected.
Solar Project Gets Started
One project that would be located on physically impaired land involves a large-scale solar development in Kings County known as the Westlands Solar Park. The project is proposed on 30,000 acres of land owned by three private landowners and Westlands Water District. The land includes properties affected by lack of drainage facilities to remove water runoff containing high levels of selenium.
Daniel Kim, a principal partner in Westside Holdings, a pre-development organization planning the Westlands Solar Park project, says the land has been designated as a competitive renewable energy zone, and the project is unanimously supported by ag and environmental organizations.
“The Westlands Solar Park lies on farmland that is no longer as productive as before due to a combination of diminishing water supplies in the Central Valley and the lack of drainage infrastructure for removing selenium from the soils,” Kim says.
Ted Sheely, who farms cotton, wheat, lettuce and garbanzo beans, has also elected to take part. He says this year is a great example of why the solar project works for his family.
“I’ve got 1,000 acres I didn’t farm again this year because of an unreliable water supply,” he says. “When the water supply was announced, there was no crop I could plant, so this is a good place for solar.”
Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. Contact Souza via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.