Solar Energy Farmland

By Kim Delfino, Daniel Kim, Carl Zichella, and Jay Ziegler

Successful solar-energy development requires plenty of sunshine, but it also requires land— sometimes, lots of land. Developing utility-scale solar projects has become controversial in some places because the projects could take prime farmland out of production or cause harm to environmentally sensitive lands. A bill now on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk helps address these problems. Senate Bill 618 by state Senator Lois Wolk of Davis would be an important catalyst for green job creation in the state and incentivize renewable-energy projects to locate on degraded agricultural land.

Solar Energy Farmland
Solar Energy Farmland

The measure would make it cheaper and likely faster for solar power developers to locate large-scale solar projects on impaired farmland that’s no longer fertile. Under this bill solar power developers who steer projects toward impaired land and avoid prime farmland can pay a reduced fee for terminating Williamson Act land-conservation contracts if they place their land into a new Solar-Use Easement. SB 618 also aims to protect the integrity of the Williamson Act program by ensuring that developers cannot use these lands for anything other than solar energy projects. Williamson Act contracts are voluntary land-use restrictions that landowners place on their property, limiting its use to agricultural or compatible activities.

In return, landowners benefit from a reduced property tax assessment. SB 618 would eliminate the need for landowners to wait out a nine-year, non-renewal period or pay a cancellation penalty if they develop renewable energy on farmland that is impaired either due to physical limitations or adverse soil conditions. Agricultural and conservation organizations support SB 618 because they also agree that California should be directing renewable energy projects toward our least productive farm and ranch land and away from prime farmland and environmentally sensitive areas, such as habitat for animals threatened with extinction. One project that would benefit from the bill is the Westlands Solar Park project in Kings County that could convert 30,000 acres of impaired farmland into as much as 5,000 megawatts of solar energy.

The project has earned support and encouragement from both conservation and agricultural organizations. At full development of 5,000 MWs, the Westlands Solar Park will be the biggest solar project in the United States and one of the biggest in the world — capable of powering almost all of the city of Los Angeles. Not only is this project unique due to its size and location, but also it is widely supported and will help establish California’s leadership on renewable energy. The Westlands Solar Park is located on land where crop-killing concentrations of selenium and drainage issues limit productivity.

Farmers don’t view this land as economically viable because of poor soil quality and the lack of available drainage options. Conservation and agricultural organizations see the Westlands Solar Park as the closest thing to “shovel ready” as a renewable project can be – especially because it is also located near existing power transmission lines. Renewable energy projects like the Westlands Solar Park will provide thousands of real green jobs to a region struggling with chronic unemployment. It will also provide long-term economic development and training benefits, because construction along with necessary energy transmission is expected to take more than 10 years to complete.

As California works to create its future clean-energy economy, let’s recognize the opportunities that exist in areas like the Central Valley and Imperial County, where there are hundreds of thousands of acres of marginally productive, degraded agricultural land that can be converted to renewable energy production, creating thousands of jobs and billions of dollars worth of economic opportunity without removing productive prime farmland. We ask Gov. Brown to sign SB 618 and continue to demonstrate his strong leadership in promoting California’s clean energy future. Kim Delfino is California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, Daniel Kim is a partner in Westside Holdings, Carl Zichella is a director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Jay Ziegler is director at The Nature Conservancy.

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