California losing farmland to solar energy

California farmland going solarSolar developers are swallowing up thousands of acres of productive California farmland to build utility-scale solar installations.

That could be a big problem for California’s agriculture industry if the development is not more carefully monitored, said Ed Thompson with the American Farmland Trust.

There are currently 40,000 acres of California farmland in development or slated for development with solar arrays, Thompson said.

“That’s a lot of farmland,” he said. “Ideally you’d pick areas that are not as good for farming.”

But, he said, a lot of the areas solar developers are targeting are productive farm acres, especially those in the south San Joaquin Valley.

“There’s no way to know what the cumulative impact on farmland is going to be,” Thompson said.

Municipal and county governments are making piecemeal decisions about projects and approving them in vacuums.

“There doesn’t seem to be an overall strategy,” Thompson said.

That’s what organizations like his and others are pushing the California government to tackle. There needs to be an accounting of farmland being developed for solar and some external force pushing solar developers toward less productive farmland. Thompson said there isn’t anything right now other than groups like his urging it.

Developers are just looking for flat ground near power distribution lines.

There is a huge demand for solar installations in California. The state’s renewable energy portfolio standard requires utilities in the state to get a third of their power from renewable sources by 2020. Attempts to build solar arrays in the Mojave Desert have been met with strong resistance from environmental groups concerned with the impact on endangered species there.

Thompson said it’s very hard for farm owners to resist development offers. While agriculture in California is a $40 billion industry, agricultural uses still can’t compete with more urban uses, Thompson said.

“Even in the Napa Valley, where prime wine-growing land can go for $100,000 an acre, it still can’t compete with the price if that land were broken up into housing lots,” he said. “We just keep losing the farmland.”

He said California has lost more than 500,000 acres – a full sixth of its farmland – to development in the last 20 years.

In addition to solar and other renewable energy development, Thompson said a high-speed rail line and oil and gas development is taking up farmland. “There are a lot of competing interests.”

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