The same things that make the San Joaquin Valley ideal for growing crops, plenty of sun and land, is also attracting large-scale solar power developers.
Hear the companion radio feature Wednesday morning, on The California Report.
Farmer Aaron Barcellos bristles at the idea that putting solar panels on his land is “paving it over,” as some critics have contended. Harvesting electrons, he says, is not the same as pouring concrete to build houses or a shopping center. Solar isn’t permanent: he can simply pull out the posts holding up the panels when he wants to plow the land under again. In the meantime, using a small part of his farm to generate power for the grid is a good way to bring in some guaranteed income, helping him weather the ups and downs of drought and crop prices.
But on Barcellos’s farm, the ground closest to a PG&E substation is considered “prime” farmland. That means he has to get permission from county supervisors to take his land out of the Williamson Act, which gives farmers a tax break for keeping prime farmland in agriculture. I explore that controversy in my radio story on today’s California Report.
A new joint report from UC Berkeley and UCLA (a big pdf) estimates that California could need 100,000 acres of land to meet its renewable energy targets by 2030. But it warns that the state needs to define which land is optimal for solar development, or else it risks losing prime farmland.
That’s exactly the fear of the California Farm Bureau. It’s suing Fresno County over its decision to allow a solar development on land protected by the Williamson Act. The fight places the Farm Bureau, usually a fierce defender of property rights, in the odd position of squaring off against willing property owners over what they should be able to do with their land.
Fresno County Farm Bureau President Ryan Jacobson says the sheer magnitude of the 30-or-so projects proposed for Fresno County is a threat to the nation’s most productive farm county. (Check out a recent map of proposed solar projects in the county.)
“The reason Fresno County is the number-one agricultural county in the world is because of our large tracts of uninterrupted land,” says Jacobsen. “We’re concerned about these industrial uses breaking that up. [Farming] is one of the very few bright spots in our economy right now and unfortunately, we’re paving it over.”
Jacobsen also warns solar panels don’t necessarily make good neighbors in farm country. Bees that pollinate orchards can gum up the surface with sticky pollen. Layers of dust from neighboring farms can settle on panels, reducing their output.
But Barcellos says he’s not concerned. “We’re fourth generation farmers,” he says. “If I thought this was something that wasn’t compatible with farming, my family just wouldn’t be interested in it.”
In fact, he’s one of the first farmers planning to experiment with planting crops next to solar panels – using the shade to protect his delicate pomegranates from sunburn. “The plan is to have two rows of pomegranate trees between two rows of panels. They’d get sunlight 55 percent of the time, and be shaded the rest of the day,” explains Barcellos. It’s an experiment researchers at San Diego State plan to follow closely, to see if it can be duplicated elsewhere.
Farmland conservation advocates say they’re not against renewable energy. Their ideal solution would be to put solar on less productive farmland. But that doesn’t always work logistically, especially if that land is far from transmission lines. The UCLA/UC Berkeley study recommends upgrading electricity infrastructure to make it easier for more remote, less productive fields to connect to the grid.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post identified Aaron Barcellos as “Tom Barcellos.” We apologize for the confusion — especially to Tom Barcellos, who alerted us to the discrepancy.