The Williamson Act

Solar in California and The Williamson Act

This Stockton Record story by Alex Breitler highlights an issue that could become more common in California as clean energy gains a higher profile: The Williamson Act, and the impact it has on solar and other projects.

As Breitler notes, The Williamson Act is a voluntary program in which farmers agree to keep their land undeveloped for 10 years in return for tax breaks. About one-third of all the private land in California is enrolled in the program, so odds are the two will sometimes clash - such as they have near Stockton.

The issue is complicated by the fact that The Williamson Act does not specifically address solar, thus the release of this primer by the state. It cites four ways in which solar could be permitted on such property, including declaring it compatible with agriculture.

Which, apparently, is the approach being used in Kings County, where solar proposals are coming in fast. Officials there have determined that solar is compatible where it is appropriate, and proposed legislation would cement that philosophy as state policy.

However, the same bill , according to this Hanford Sentinel story, also directs solar farms to only marginally productive and physically impaired lands. That worries Greg Gatzka, Kings County's community development director.

The Sentinel story by Eiji Yamashita quotes Gatzka as saying, "The draft language they have come out with ...goes far beyond where our policies have. This may even render most of our county possibly unable to house a lot of solar projects by the definitions they are putting in there."

Kings County offsets the potential loss of farmland by limiting solar projects to 25 to 30 years and requiring a soil-reclamation plan. In addition, the Sentinel story notes, the county requires the protection of farmland somewhere else as a trade off.

How this all shakes out is unknown, but the timing is interesting. It comes when state has passed a 33 percent renewables mandate, and when Gov. Brown, according to this report, is on the verge of appointing a green jobs czar in California.

Stay tuned.

Another Shout-Out For Solar Energy In San Joaquin Valley

The deserts of Southern California garner most of the headlines when people talk of the potential of solar energy in the Golden State. But the west side of the San Joaquin Valley is equally suitable, if not more so.

Increasingly, word of its potential is seeping out. The latest endorsement comes from The Bakersfield Californian in the form of an editorial that calls solar projects in western Kern County "the perfect marriage of land and need."

The western side of the Valley has some tantalizing attributes, as sierra2thesea notes in this article, and in this one. Thus, there are some rather impressive solar-energy projects on the drawing boards.

One of the largest is a 400 megawatt array just east of Interstate 5 near Tranquillity in Fresno County that would be built in phases, and could contain up to 2.5 million solar panels sprawled over 3,500 acres. The proposed western Kern County project is on land that cannot be farmed and, as such, is supported by the Sierra Club.

The west side has thousands of acres of fallow farmland that could mesh with solar and other types of clean energy, including biofuel. Meanwhile, proposals in the Mojave Desert and nearby Carrizo Plain have drawn fire from environmentalists.

However, that doesn't mean that solar panels will layer all geographically suitable land in the Valley. Property that is protected from non-farming development by The Williamson Act would face additional hurdles.

Still, there is a reason why University of California, Merced, which is conducting cutting-edge research into solar energy and algae biofuel, refers to the San Joaquin Valley as "Solar Valley."

But Solar Valley, in our opinion, would be more than just large-scale solar projects. There is plenty of opportunity for smaller more localized projects, such as rooftop systems by cities such as Fresno, and in the Valley's $20 billion farming industry. Fresno Bee reporter Robert Rodriguez writes about solar and agriculture in this story.

Economic development experts have long wanted to diversify the Valley's economy. Maybe Solar Valley is one way to do it.