This article was originally published on November 9 on the Examiner.com.
|A screen-grab of the Hurricane Sandy Wind Map infographic taken at 10:26 AM 30 Oct 2012. The surface wind data in this beautiful wind map from Hint.fm (Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg) comes from the National Digital Forecast Database.|
Solar really makes sense in Central California, where nature's most abundant resource blazes away up to 300 days per year. These solar projects have made news in recent days: This appeared on The Fresno Bee web site. The police station is just a few miles from my house, and will be the largest public solar project in Clovis. That follows on the heels of this announcement of a packinghouse in Fowler adding 12 acres of solar panels and this one of the massive 550-megawatt Topaz project breaking ground in San Luis Obispo County just west of us in Fresno.
But those aren't all. Analysts count about 70 proposals before county planners from Merced to Kern counties, with about 30 in Fresno County. Just the Fresno County proposals total about 10,600 acres.Those don't include smaller rooftop, municipal or some farming projects.
It remains to be seen how many are approved or become operational, but there is not denying Central California is a hot spot for solar power.
Photo: California Energy Commission photo of solar plant near Kerman in Fresno County
The sun is nature's most abundant resource, especially in the world's salad bowl - the San Joaquin Valley. The sun shines up to 300 days per year here, and summer temperatures can reach I-can-feel-my-hair-catching-fire levels.
Utility bills soar in the summer when energy use is high. So much, in fact, that an acquaintance once wrote in despair on his Facebook page, "Are power bills supposed to have commas in them?"
Agriculture is the leading industry and a major employer here, and farmers have an up close and personal relationship with energy. By some estimates, the food system in the United States consumes around 16% of the nation's energy.
"from the manufacture and application of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and irrigation, through crop and livestock production, processing, and packaging; distribution services, such as shipping and cold storage; the running of refrigeration, preparation, and disposal equipment in food retailing and foodservice establishments; and in home kitchens," notes a March 2010 study by the federal Economic Research Service entitled, "Energy Use in the U.S. Food System."
So, cutting energy bills makes sense for farmers, who also can reduce their sometimes heavy carbon footprints. Which explains why agricultural operations in the San Joaquin Valley are embracing renewable energy, most commonly solar power.
Onion grower/processor Varsity Produce of Bakersfield is among the latest. Part of the energy for its packing and cold storage operation comes from the sun. “After looking at solar for several years, we finally saw numbers that made a lot of economic sense and we can now feel really good about decreasing our carbon footprint," Operations Manager Brent Rhodes said in this news release that appeared in greentechmedia.
Varsity Produce is hardly alone in its pursuit of alternative energy. Cenergy, the solar provider For Varsity, has installed several solar arrays in agricultural operations throughout the Valley and state. Here is more.
And Cenergy isn't alone in the crowded agricultural solar market. REC Solar, SolFocus and others are staking out positions. Ryan Park, Director of Business Development at REC Solar, says in this blog post that farming operations are more than a niche for his company. Sierra2theSea gives a nice overview in this post.
The federal government is adding fuel with its Rural Energy for America Program, or REAP. Since President Obama took office three years ago, the USDA REAP program has aided 74 projects totaling 15.3 million kilowatts in California, most of them distributed generation developments that produce or save power on site, according to this just-released report.
The California projects included 61 solar arrays, four wind turbine developments and three energy-efficiency upgrades. Lyall Enterprises of the San Diego area and Roberti Ranch north of Lake Tahoe, for example, used REAP loan guarantees and grants to install solar-energy systems to power their irrigation pumps.
Most of the agriculture operations use small on-site operations, but solar developers in California, which has an ambitious 33 percent renewables goal by 2020, are applying for large utility-scale solar operations in the San Joaquin Valley, the high deserts of Kern County and the desert regions of Southern California.
The proposals have sparked opposition from agriculture groups who fear losing prime farm land and environmentalists who worry about disrupting habitat. Thus, individual counties, such as Fresno, are developing solar policies. Here is what Fresno County Supervisors designed, according to The Fresno Bee.
It appears farmers are harvesting much more than just crops.
One of my former newspaper colleagues referred in this post to "The great Central Valley solar rush," but it turns out that might be too regional. California could well become the great Solar State.
The number of proposed solar projects exceeds what is required to meet California's ambitious 33 percent renewables by 2020 mandate, according to this Reuters story. It's unlikely that all the proposals will be approved, but it is encouraging to the solar energy movement. I wonder if California will exceed the 33 percent mandate and, if so, by how much?
Solar makes sense in California, especially in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California deserts where the sun shines brightly and land is abundant. There are challenges, however: Some farmers in the Valley fear conflicts with prime ag land, while habitat and other environmental concerns plague some desert projects.
The solar vs farmland issue will be discussed Feb. 6 by planning commissioners in Kings County, where an advisory agency is recommending that solar projects not be placed on land protected under The Williamson Act or on property that is designated "medium priority" or higher. Here is a study document that commissioners will review.
Still, solar is making inroads. Fresno property owners are discovering the power in rooftop solar, and the Valley's farmers are fast adding renewable sources to their operations. Agriculture and water pumping consume about 3.15% of the total power used in PG&E and SCE territories, according to the California Energy Commission, so participation from the farming community is welcome.
I lack the mental bandwidth to understand all the physics involved, but technological advances in solar energy are coming at a breath-taking rate. Costs are decreasing, and it won't be long until solar power reaches parity. Read here about what our friends at UC Merced's fast-emerging solar-energy research center are doing.
With costs falling and Gov. Brown's support, solar could expand in earnest in California, and we'll have more proposals such as this large one for thousands of solar panels in the west side of Fresno County.
Photo of Kerman solar substation courtesy of California Energy Commission
This edition of sierra2thesea - produced by a former Valley resident who now lives on the Central Coast - has a couple stories on the subject. One covers the overall growth of solar down on the farm and the other notes three proposed solar projects in Fresno County, including one that combines solar "trees" with regular fruit trees as a way to possibly ease the conflict between prime farm land and renewable energy.
Solar power makes sense in a region with up to 300 days of sun per year, high power bills and vast expanses of land, but farm officials worry about possible conflicts with the $6 billion agriculture industry in Fresno County. More on those conflicts here.
If those conflicts can be managed, the San Joaquin Valley could see more solar energy. The Fresno metropolitan region already ranks fourth in the state in its use of rooftop solar (more on that here) and the robust potential of solar arrays at farms and other sites in the 27,000 square miles that encompass the Valley could make us a showcase for renewable energy.
Maybe we could become known as Solar Valley.
It's no wonder that Fresno County and the rest of the Valley is often called the nation's salad bowl.
The same resources - such as ample amounts of flat land and sun - that make the Valley so fertile also are prompting what Lois Henry, a former colleague of mine, described in The Bakersfield Californian as, "The great Central Valley solar rush."
Kern County is home to some 32 solar applications that would encompass 17,000 acres. Likewise, Fresno County is fielding about 30 applications on 10,000 acres that collectively could be worth $5 billion. Kings County also is a solar hot spot.
Everyone acknowledges the emerging potential of the solar industry on the Valley. Farmers in California lead the nation in the use of renewable power, especially solar. It could be another cash crop for growers, could slash their operational costs, bring new life to unproductive farm land, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (electricity contributes about 25 percent of the state's emissions) and help reduce a stubborn double-digit unemployment rate.
But at what price? The Fresno County Farm Bureau opposes solar projects on prime acreage, but solar developers need to be close to the power grid. In this story, Fresno Bee reporter Kurtis Alexander quoted Steve Geil, president of the Economic Development Corporation in Fresno County: "There's a window here of opportunity. The companies are saying, 'Are you going to welcome us or are we going to find obstacle after obstacle after obstacle?' "
Alexander has devoted many inches of copy to the subject lately, including this story where Fresno County supervisors approved the cancellation of a Williamson Act conservation contract to permit a 27-megawatt, 318-acre solar project near San Joaquin, a tiny community on the county's west side with a 35 percent jobless rate. The panel said the land lacked water and thus was suitable for solar development.
But local governments are proceeding cautiously while developing strategies. Fresno County formed a group to study how much and where land should be devoted to solar. Kern County, according to Henry, has approved 1,444 megawatts from five projects, but also is treading tenderly.
Even projects proposed for marginal land have met opposition at times. A proposed 400 megawatt, 5,000 acre solar photovoltaic facility on land with poor water access in the Panoche Valley in San Benito County drew strong opposition from local ranchers and farmers - even though the local farm bureau supported the use of solar, according to a new study by UCLA and UC, Berkeley.
The opponents expressed concern about the project’s potential impact on their
agricultural land. Environmentalists said it endangered the San Joaquin kit fox and giant kangaroo, and the Audubon Society said it could hurt one of the world's best birding sites.
The joint UCLA/UC Berkeley report could help reach that delicate balance between agriculture and solar interests. It's called "Harvesting Clean Energy: How California Can Deploy Large-Scale Renewable Energy Projects On Appropriate Farmland."
Here's a link.
Meeting California's 33 percent renewables goal will require a mixture of large-scale and centralized solar projects, such as those on rooftops and along roads. The study reveals that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has received requests to build approximately 34
large solar thermal power plants, totaling roughly 24,000 megawatts, on more than
By December 2010, the California Energy Commission approved
10 solar-thermal projects - seven of them on BLM land - totaling 4,192 megawatts of generating capacity. In addition, developers proposed 8,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects using wind and photovoltaic technologies.
In 2010, California local governments permitted 1,097 megawatts of non-thermal renewable energy capacity on private land. Kern and Los Angeles Counties approved an 800 megawatt wind project, a 230 megawatt photovoltaic project, and a 10 megawatt photovoltaic project.
Solano County permitted a 37-megawatt wind project, Kings County approved a 20 megawatt photovoltaic project and, in March, Kern County permitted a 6,047-acre Maricopa Sun solar project south of Bakersfield. The Maricopa installation alone will produce an estimated 700 megawatts of clean power.
However, the authors of the UCLA/UC Berkeley report noted that farmland is disappearing at the rate of one square mile every four days, and that potential for conflict arises even though the amount required for clean energy is relatively modest.
Only about 1.3 percent of the state's 30 million acres of farm and other suitable private and public land would be displaced. An additional 3.7 percent of the land would be required for less disruptive energy sources, such as wind turbines and dual-use of solar with farms and other types of localized generation.
However, energy transmission is a bug-a-boo; the report quoted the California Public Utility Commission's estimated requirement of seven new transmission lines needed to accommodate the 33 percent renewables mandate by 2020.
The report recommends upgrading the transmission infrastructure to meet the clean-energy power needs from remote and impaired agriculture sites. Other recommendations include developing energy policies for agriculture land and streamlining the permitting process for projects on impaired and unproductive farmland.
With a little effort and cooperation, the San Joaquin Valley and the rest of California could become a leader in clean energy.