New solar energy installations may be headed to the valley portion of Kern County as investors, government officials and advocacy groups weigh options for reusing land that will have to be taken out of production as a result of state restrictions on groundwater pumping.
Photovoltaic solar arrays, for years an attractive investment for local farmland owners, would appear to align with California’s ambitious goal of meeting all its electricity needs with renewable energy.
But there are a number of limitations on large-scale development of solar farms on Central Valley farmland, the biggest of which is inadequate infrastructure for connecting such projects to the state power grid.
Alternative uses that come into the discussion range from habitat conservation and recharging groundwater aquifers — two potentially compatible land uses that can be made to generate revenue for landowners — to ranching and even recreation.
It’s unclear at this point how much flexibility individual landowners will have in deciding what to do with their property and how much influence regional agencies will have in coordinating the reuse of former farmland.
In Kern County, a consensus seems to have emerged that the best option is to offer landowners maximum flexibility.
Lorelei Oviatt, director of Kern’s Planning & Natural Resources Department, said the county hopes to offer “a menu of things” landowners can do to maximize their water and their investment.
“We’re trying to help people maximize their land,” she said. “If they sell it for habitat, terrific. We are market-driven here.”
The president of the Kern County Farm Bureau said in a written statement that the organization recognizes landowners have to look at all their options in preparing for full implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which by regulating groundwater pumping is expected to idle hundreds of thousands of acres across the valley.
President John Moore noted SGMA’s economic impacts will affect “not only landowners but the Kern County community at large.”
“Our farmers and ranchers have exercised creativity with their properties over the last century,” he wrote, “and we, the KCFB, encourage all of our unique landowners to continue this rich tradition whether it is in the form of aquifer recharge, solar, habitat preservation, farming or ranching.”
Advocates of reusing former farmland in the most environmentally beneficial ways acknowledge landowners will do what makes the most sense financially. They have been pushing for more taxpayer subsidies for habitat, aquifer recharge and wildlife easements.
Some of their work involves pushing for flexible agreements that would allow new habitat to return to agricultural use, if conditions warrant, said Ann Hayden, senior director of western water programs for the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund.
But because habitat, solar and other uses don’t always make sense if they’re done in haphazard, patchwork fashion, she asserted the best solution might be coordination between county officials and local groundwater sustainability agencies composed of water managers working to bring local use of irrigation water back into balance.
The EDF is involved with various demonstration projects aimed at aligning diverse parties’ interests to achieve the greatest benefit. At this point, however, “this is really uncharted territory,” Hayden said.
She emphasized EDF envisions a “mosaic” of land uses, including solar projects posing minimal impact to native plants and animals. But she said there’s a lot of work to do to make sure it’s done right.
“Most importantly,” she said, “folks are starting to have conversations on this issue, and that goes a long way.”
Solar power is where Kern County has the most experience in putting former farmland to good use. New solar projects come to Oviatt’s office about every two weeks on average, she said, and the county has permitted more than 100 megawatts of solar generation on former farmland, enough to power at least 25,000 homes.
These projects fall into two very different categories, each of which presents its own challenges.
One kind is designed to feed electricity into the state power grid. While these can be very profitable over the long term, and have attracted investment by large companies, their development continues to be limited by a scarcity of transmission capacity. Utilities have a lot of infrastructure to build before this option becomes available to many farmland owners.
Local farmland appraiser and broker Michael Ming, who works with large solar projects and developers, said such facilities generally must be located within 4 miles of a utility substation and measure at least 1,200 acres.
“Size matters,” he said.
Additionally, these kinds of projects face special barriers if they’re located on what’s considered prime farmland, meaning the property has been farmed during the last several years, among other stipulations.
Also, if the property has qualified for tax relief under the state Williamson Act, enacted to preserve farmland, it cannot be suddenly taken out of agricultural production unless the owner pays penalties equivalent to roughly 14 percent of the land’s assessed value.
Oviatt said she is working with the Newsom administration to change the state Department of Conservation’s definition of prime farmland in a way that would make it easier to convert farmland to other uses.
Keali’i Bright, director of the agency’s Division of Land Resource Protection, acknowledged in a written statement that local governments face complex challenges and called for their cooperation as the state works through the issue.
“The Department of Conservation will adjust and build upon its programs to give local governments and the agricultural community the support and tools they will need for this transition, and to support the state’s ability to reach groundwater sustainability, biodiversity, and socio-economic goals,” Bright wrote.
An alternative farmland reuse model is the construction of solar plants that power adjacent facilities — food processors, for example, or cold storage. Oviatt said such projects generally exist to lower companies’ operating costs.
A primary requirement for these projects is that they must serve a pre-existing power user. That has opened opportunities for local ag producers large and small.
One is Kern tree nut grower Mike Hankins, who in 2017 received $12,500 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program, which has provided grants and loan guarantees for just two such projects in Kern County during the last three years.
While helpful, the subsidy represented a small fraction of the three-quarter-acre project’s $450,000 price tag, Hankins said.
“It’s working really well,” he said, adding the solar project provides enough electricity to power a 150-horsepower agricultural pump.
The Trump administration on Thursday announced a memo of understanding between the USDA and the U.S. Department of Energy designed to promote greater investment in rural energy projects.
Promoted as a creator of manufacturing jobs with potential to improve rural economies, the agreement requires the two federal agencies to meet quarterly and report their progress annually.
If the many obstacles involved can be overcome, there appear to be opportunities for more solar projects in the Central Valley.
A study published in 2016 by the UC Berkeley School of Law used advanced mapping software in an attempt to align the interests of Central Valley stakeholders and identify sites for solar development on former farmland.
The effort ended up finding 470,000 acres of what the authors called “least-conflict” land on which solar projects can be built. That represented 5 percent of all the land in the project’s 9.5 million acres in the study’s subject area.