Solar farms could mushroom under law
30,000 acres under contract; emissions law could be undone
By WES SANDER
When the agricultural Westlands Water District became a landowner a decade ago, it faced the problem of what to do with its growing inventory of former farmland.
The district began buying members' parcels in 2000 to remove them from production, thus freeing some of the district's tight federal water allocations for farming elsewhere in the district.
The idea of water storage proved infeasible: the area's geology doesn't accommodate groundwater banking, and water-quality issues nixed surface storage.
Now Westlands is looking to cash in on what has become a growth industry in the San Joaquin Valley: solar farming. Westlands has put some 30,000 acres under contract to developers with intentions of building large solar arrays. Most of the parcels are under 30-year contracts, said district spokeswoman Sarah Woolf.
Woolf said "hundreds" of solar developers have approached the district in the past two years. While it contradicts the district's central mission of serving farmland, contracting land for solar facilities works with the circumstances, she said.
"It is an attractive option at the present moment in time," Woolf said.
With solar contractors pursuing farmland around the valley, the state is likely to see more farmland covered in solar panels despite the currently unsteady footing of the state's global-warming law.
AB32, which mandates regulations for reducing the state's emissions, could be undone by Proposition 23 on the November ballot.
But the state's utilities are still working to meet the Renewables Portfolio Standard, which was created by different legislation. That law requires utilities to move a third of their electricity production to renewable sources, like solar and wind, by 2030.
"There are speculators running around all over the state now," said Sue Kately, executive director of the California Solar Energy Industries Association. "These project developments have really become viable."
Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League, said problems are developing as counties decide whether solar arrays fit with Williamson Act contracts, which lower landowners' property taxes while requiring that the land remain in agriculture.
"That's a big discussion going on right now," Cunha said.
If the facility exists primarily to power the farm, with excess fed to the grid when it's available, it fits with farming, Cunha said. The problem is, utilities want solar facilities that primarily serve the utility -- and that's not an agricultural use of the land, he said.
"If farmers can create solar that is economically feasible to reduce their costs, that works," Cunha said.
For Westlands, developing solar facilities preserves the possibility that the land could return to farming in the future. That's an option precluded by other land uses, said spokeswoman Woolf.
"You're not paving it and completely changing its purpose," she said.