My office sits in one of the most fertile agriculture regions in the world. I just have to venture a few miles to see crops in every direction. Farmers in Fresno County last year produced
almost $6 billion worth of grapes, tomatoes, almonds and other commodities, and employed more than 59,000 people.
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.