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Agriculture Industry and Solar Developers Battle In California’s San Joaquin Valley

Gina-Marie Cheeseman
| Thursday November 17th, 2011 | 1 Comment

During the last part of the 19th century cattle ranchers and farmers battled for supremacy in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Farmers won the battle, and farming has been entrenched in the Valley’s fertile soil ever since. Today another battle is being waged, and this time it is between farmers and those who want to develop solar power. The San Joaquin Valley is considered by many to be the agricultural center of the world. It is also an area where the sun shines most days of the year, and there is a high unemployment rate.

Fresno County, one of the highest agricultural producing counties in the country, is battle central. The Fresno County Board of Supervisors put a proposed 20-acre solar plant on hold earlier this month. The proposed solar project is located within the farming community I grew up in, an area with soil so rich that my grandfather called it “the best farmland in the world.” However, the land where the solar plant would be is “in the sphere of influence of the city of Fresno which means the area is likely to soon be regulated by the city instead of the county,” as the Fresno Bee reports. In other words, the land borders the beginning of the city of Fresno and one day will be part of the city.

The Board put the project on hold just a day after the California Farm Bureau Federation announced it was suing the county over a conservation contract (under the Williamson Act) the Board canceled in August for 90 acres near Coalinga, located in southwestern Fresno County, for a proposed solar project.

Fortunately, not everyone on the Board is hesitant about solar. Supervisor Henry Perea told the Fresno Bee, “We need to have this [policy] refined, but I don’t think we should hold these things up.”

Policy paper issues recommendations for policy makers about developing renewable energy on agricultural lands

It is clear that the the Fresno County Board of Supervisors needs to read and implement the recommendations of a recently released joint policy paper by the law schools at UCLA and UC-Berkeley about sustainably developing renewable energy on agricultural lands. The recommendations include:

  • Developing criteria for the most suitable agricultural lands for renewable energy development, including impaired lands with poor agricultural and biological value that possess strong renewable energy generation potential
  • Expediting the permit process for projects on these impaired lands
  • Planning and developing electricity infrastructure upgrades and interconnection processes to accommodate increased energy production from impaired agricultural sites

California utilities must meet the target of 33 percent renewable energy generation by 2030. Meeting that target will require about 100,000 acres of land across the state, the policy paper estimates. It will only take 1.3 percent of the state’s total land area to meet all of the state’s 2050 electricity needs from renewable sources, according to estimates cited in the policy paper by the California Council on Science and Technology.

To be fair to farmers, there is a reason why some are afraid of prime farmland being lost: 1.3 million acres of agricultural land has been lost to urban development since 1984, according to the policy paper. From just 2006 to 2008, over 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland was lost to urban development.

The key to sustainably developing solar power in the San Joaquin Valley is to balance the interests of farmers with that of solar developers. It is a delicate balance, but it is one that is worth striving for in an area with plenty of sunshine and people needing jobs.

Photo: Living Off Grid


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  • Dave Kranz

    Just so there’s no confusion about the California Farm Bureau lawsuit: It’s about conserving prime agricultural land and is not anti-solar power. Here’s a quote from the Farm Bureau news release announcing the lawsuit:

    “Farmers recognize the potential of solar power,” Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger said, “and California farmers lead the nation in the installation of on-farm solar power generators. But pressure to build utility-scale solar plants has touched off a land rush that threatens thousands of acres of prime farmland. There are millions of acres of marginal land in California. That’s where these power plants should go, so we can conserve prime farmland to grow the crops that sustain our state and nation.”

    We need to think now about where we place these new power plants, so we don’t fulfill one environmental goal by ignoring another.