Conflict of Interest: California Solar Projects Compete With Prime Farmland

There’s a flip side to everything, and in this case it’s that the phenomenal growth of solar in California may be gobbling up too much prime agricultural land.

227 proposed solar projects are in the pipeline and new applications keep coming in, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. 100 of those projects are already proposed for 40,000 acres in the biggest farming counties in San Joaquin Valley. Planners say solar developer applications are outnumbering those for housing developments during the housing bubble.

Developers are attracted to farmland because it’s flat, is near transmission lines, there’s lots of sun, and because it’s already been used for agriculture, there are fewer environmental challenges than on undeveloped land.

Although California’s Department of Conservation is charged with tracking development on private farmland, budget cuts are making that difficult. No one really knows how much of the state’s farmland is being lost to solar development.

California lacks a statewide policy on converting farmland to other uses, even as a wide range of groups have called for one. County governments approve projects, unless they are bigger than 50 megawatts, in which case the California Energy Commission does.

Local governments like the projects because they offer jobs. The amount of acreage they require varies widely, from as little as 20 acres to the biggest one operating so far, on more than 500 acres.

More than 570,000 acres in the region could be lost to housing, solar development, a warming climate, cyclical drought, ongoing farm water rationing to protect endangered fish, and the state’s high-speed rail project, according to a report released in January by the American Farmland Trust, which monitors how much of the nation’s farmland is absorbed by development.

"These are things that don’t make headlines, but come under the category that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone," says Ed Thompson, of American Farmland Trust.

In 2011, California passed a law that provides incentives for solar developers to site projects on impaired farmland – lands that are no longer suitable for agriculture because they’re contaminated or non-productive.

This law made the Westlands Solar Park possible, an enormous 2.7 gigawatt project planned for 47 square miles in Fresno and Kings counties. Because of the poor drainage, the soil has high selenium levels and was left fallow years ago. Still, the project is on hold because of the decade-long wait for a connection to transmission lines.

Next month, the California Energy Commission will recommend a coordinated approach to siting solar in "zones with minimal environmental or habitat value," near existing or planned electric system infrastructure, says the San Francisco Chronicle. The agency plans to work with the Department of Conservation to identify areas with marginal land.

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