Making Hay While the Sun Shines: A Flap over Solar Panels in Farm Country

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.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

Aaron Barcellos and his yellow lab, Maddox. Barcellos hopes to plant rows of pomegranate trees next to rows of solar panels.

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.

Sasha Khokha/KQED

A new kind of harvest: workers install more than 16 thousand posts that will hold up solar panels on this PG&E-owned solar farm in Western Fresno County. This field used to grow tomatoes.

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.”

Courtesy of SolarGen USA

Barcellos wants to see if the shade from solar panels can actually benefit crops like pomegranates.

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.

  • Kim Williams

    100,000 acres can easily be found within the millions of acres of rooftops throughout the state.  Why aren’t you reporting on this solution that will put the power to generate energy into the hands of the people? 

    Big Energy is spending big money to discredit the serious threat that distributed power poses to their current monopoly.  By giving the impression that huge chunks of land are the only way to meet renewable energy goals, KQED is doing their part to promote Big Energy propaganda. 

    I’m glad the solar tax credit, only available to corporations, is ending.  If we are to truly change the energy production paradigm in the United States, we will need to embrace distributed power and enforce feed-in tariffs.  Any solar tax credits paid for with our tax dollars should go to the people, not PG&E and other corporate developers.

    So which is it KQED – are you for the people or for the greedy corporations?

    • http://moneydick.com Daniel Morgan

      I fail to see any bias on the part of KQED. Who do YOU work for? 

      • Kim Williams

        KQED has continually reported that large-scale industrial solar deveopment is needed in order to meet California’s renewable energy mandates.  That is a one-sided argument and not representative of the facts.  For example, Germany & Spain are world leaders in solar development and they did it through distributed power, homeowner incentives and feed-in tariffs. 

        Read some of the lectures by Jeremy Rifkin, particularly the one titled The Third Industrial Revolution: Leading the Way to a Green Energy Era and a Hydrogen Economy.  Mr. Rifkin has been an advisor to the European Union for the past decade and is president of the Foundation on Economic Trends.  Then you’ll understand some of what I’m talking about.

        I am a beyond-organic farmer who raises hens & pigs on pasture for eggs & meat.  My business is called Your Family Farm and is located in Panoche Valley, San Benito County, CA.  I am also an instructional aide at Panoche Elementary.  I have a keen interest in this subject and have been following it closely ever since our county Board of Supervisors ignored the law to approve a 5,000 acre industrial solar energy development for Panoche Valley – an area zoned for agriculture and consisting entirely of prime ag land with Class 1 soils. 

        Panoche Valley also happens to be core habitat for a suite of threatened and endangered species, as well as being designated as an Important Bird Area of Global Concern by the Audubon Society.  My neighbors, who are also farmers, and I have formed a grassroots organization called Save Panoche Valley.  We have partnered with the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club to oppose the industrial project, with it’s substation and water treatment facility, in court.

        KQED is funded by tax dollars and donations.  It is reasonable to expect fair reporting and not just a presentation of corporate donor viewpoints.  I comment because I value KQED and would like them to maintain the integrity & accountability that is becoming harder and harder to find in today’s corporation dominated world.

        Thank you for asking! 

        • http://blogs.kqed.org/climatewatch Craig Miller, KQED

          Kim, I know from your frequent comments here that you’ve done your homework on this issue. We appreciate well-informed analysis such as yours. But I think I need to clear up how we work as news organization.

          We are not an advocacy group, nor are we for or against any particular mode of renewable energy. As part of KQED Public Radio, Climate Watch is “for” presenting the best available information on the topic. We adhere to strict journalism standards on accuracy, fairness and independence. Our corporate underwriters have no involvement in the news process and do not influence what we report. We are in separate departments with a strictly-observed “firewall” between us.

          As to the question of distributed energy, it’s a good one. I have interviewed many experts on renewable energy, both inside and outside the corporate community. I have frequently asked the question: “How much of the job can be done with distributed (rooftop/on-site) generation?” Virtually no one has said “All of it.” That’s not to say that DG can’t be a much bigger part of the solution than it presently is and your point about the need for a feed-in tariff is well taken. We are, as we speak, working on a radio feature about the next big rooftop boom. And though we have done some reporting on this in the past, we will continue to pursue the question of what role DG can play in California’s energy future.

          • Bruce Jensen

            Craig – Thanks for this.  I will say that distributed energy could supply *the great majority of it*.  Since the 1950s, engineers have estimated that the USA’s total electrical energy requirement could be satisfied with approximately 10,000 square miles of solar panels, a value that has stayed remarkably consistent over the past 50 years despite population increases and energy demands.  In California alone, we have approximately 9,000 square miles of urbanized land and about 11-12% of the nation’s electrical demand.  If we even used 1/5th of developed area we have – rooftops, parking lots, urban freeways and similar land uses – to support distributed solar, we would have enough for virtually the entire energy demand for the state plus some left over to store for nighttime use or export.  On top of this, distributed has the advantages of requiring no extra support in the form of long transmission lines (which result in net energy loss through resistance) and construction of expensive substations which further use valuable lands.  Most importantly, it leaves valuable farmland and wildlife habitat intact.Energy companies like PG&E, Edison and so on, along with the solar entrepreneurs, prefer industrial scale systems because they can make large sums of money on it and control the flow of the product, which is usually not true of distributed systems except in cases where the panels are owned by a company and leased by a homeowner or business owner.  That argument is purely a commercial economic one – in most other respects, distributed solar energy systems can and should comprise the lion’s share of solar in the State and the Nation, and with just a bit of imagination to wrap up the cost questions, it could be implemented effectively.Bruce Jensen
            Planner, Alameda County

  • Kim Williams

    I appreciate the response Craig.
     
    Perhaps the problem is you’re talking to the wrong people?
     
    To again use the example of Germany and Spain, neither has a solar field over 600 acres that I’m aware of.  Definitely we could put small solar fields in industrial urban areas close to point-of-use and capture more energy than with rooftops.  This, however, is nothing like the multitude of industrial-scale solar projects currently in the que for approval by CAISO.
     
    My concern is raised by statements such as, “A new joint report from UC Berkeley and UCLA estimates that California could need 100,000 acres of land to meet its renewable energy targets by 2030.”  This, in conjunction with an article about a farmer who claims he has a way to combine large-scale solar energy production with farming, gives the impression that 1) it’s okay to take up huge swaths of ag land for solar and 2) large amounts of land are needed to fullfill the targeted goal of 100,000 acres.
     
    During the San Benito Planning Commission and Board of Supervisor meetings regarding the proposed 5,000 acre industrial solar project in Panoche Valley, the developers cited articles just like this one to justify the need for large-scale solar in a remote agricultural area, far from point-of-use.  KQED is a respected news source.  With established and trusted news sources such as yours, county officials did not feel the need to do additional homework and took the published, (albeit one-sided) information, cited so passionately by the developers, at face value.
     
    Ending your article with, “The UCLA/UC Berkeley study recommends upgrading electricity infrastructure to make it easier for more remote, less productive fields to connect to the grid.” and not offering an alternative view is telling.  Many university studies are funded by large corporations.  A fair reporting would have included the funding source for the study you cited.

    As a friend who is a professor at UC Fresno wrote today, “The real problem is the prevailing paradigm of large-scale projects transmitting power over great distances primarily to maintain the profits of the energy monopolies.  These “green” energy projects have given fresh license and legitmacy to corporations to continue “developing” and destroying ever more habitats and biodiversity – now ostensibly in the name of saving the planet!  We have to challenge the fundamental paradigm of how much energy we really need, and how/where we produce and distribute it, to truly transform the energy basis of the entire economy.  Otherwise, we may stave off the “frying” of the planet in the short term, but end up with a much more impoverished planet in the long run.  I don’t like how so many environmentalists are trading off biodiversity in the name of fighting climate change.  Why are we forced to make such a trade-off when the corporations and the consumers aren’t forced to trade-off a bit of their profits or comforts for a better planet?”

    Worthy questions I hope to see addressed within the Climate Watch series.

  • Anonymous

    Kim William. You have it all so right! Big energy is a farce, at least the industrial wind developments. I live in the Tehachapi Pass that was once a natural wonder for wildlife, home of the California condors, Bald and Golden eagles. The developments disturb 100% of the land for the construction then the 20 plus years of operational life using herbicides & pesticide to keep the brush down. Each turbine requires 1200 tons of reinforced steel for the pads alone. By the way a project was approved right in the middle of a major California flyway and migration corridor a few months ago- 21 sq miles. There will be a local batch plant where mountains are exploded to make the concrete using wetland water that is expected to drop by 9 feet during construction.  I can’t help but wonder if the designers of the turbines were retarded, high or not in touch with the environment where they would be placed. Those 500 foot monsters have 3 186 foot unprotected blades that spin at 200 mph at the tips; the sound is not muffled and they require white strobes and red beacons that thoroughly replace the night sky with red glare that looks like fires on the ridges in low cloud conditions. At best they should have been considered to be prototypes, not production-ready. I hear hundreds of turbines every time I walk out my door and the noise penetrates my double planed windows. They are garbage.

    The taxpayers pay 30% of the total costs for the construction and the company investors enjoy 10 years of huge tax breaks. The developers/investors make 30 times in profit over 10 years of the cost of the investment. The people, the 30% shareholder pays higher energy bills so the companies can recover all of their investment.