Commentary: Two bills help farmers address renewable energy goals


Issue Date: September 28, 2011
By Lois Wolk
Russ Lester of Dixon Ridge Farms in Winters installed a biomass generator that uses walnut shells to generate electricity. Under a bill by state Sen. Lois Wolk, Lester would be able to connect his biomass system to the state’s electrical grid.
Photo/Matt Salvo
Lois Wolk

I want to applaud Ag Alert® for its excellent two-part series on the effects of solar power on agriculture (Sept. 7 and Sept. 14), drawing attention to the fact that California farmers and ranchers lead the nation in use of solar power.

Too few Californians know that our state's farmers not only harness the sun's energy to produce half the nation's crop of fruits and vegetables, but also lead the nation in on-farm renewable power generation. Nearly one-quarter of the solar panels installed on farms nationwide are installed here in California, many farms have installed wind turbines, and we're also a leader in methane digesters.

This year, I devoted a significant portion of my legislative agenda to helping California farms harvest their vast untapped potential for clean, renewable energy by removing unnecessary barriers to small-scale renewable energy projects, and by encouraging new solar facility developments on less productive farmland.

California farmers and ranchers have always been state-of-the-art innovators who embrace new technologies, which seem to be appearing by the hour. That is just one reason that so few can feed so many.

My Senate Bill 489 works to streamline the process for connecting innovative energy sources, including on-farm favorites like biomass and biogas, to the electrical grid. SB 489 will enable all eligible renewable energy types to utilize California's Net Energy Metering program, giving farmers and food processors a way to reduce their energy bills by producing their own heat and power from what is otherwise a waste product.

Dixon Ridge Farms, which is in my district, has made considerable investments in energy-efficient equipment throughout its operation—from irrigation to refrigeration and lighting. The Winters-based company, which grows and processes organic walnuts, has even been honored by the state for efforts to improve energy savings. Yet, they can't connect their clean biomass energy to the grid, says co-owner Russ Lester.

SB 489 will help provide new opportunities for many more innovative energy producers like Russ, or like Skip Foppiano, a constituent from Linden, and the others featured in Part 1 of the Ag Alert series. All of these innovators are to be commended for their investment in clean, renewable energy.

This year, I also authored legislation to balance the need for solar development with the need to protect critical California farmland and habitat. We have all watched in dismay as a growing number of utility-scale solar projects have been proposed in exclusive agricultural zones, including agricultural preserves and on lands restricted by Williamson Act contracts.

It is unthinkable that we would sacrifice prime California agricultural land, some of the richest and most productive in the world, when there are hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland better suited for solar development because it is salt-impaired with insufficient clean water, or has been retired due to naturally occurring selenium buildup, or for countless other reasons.

My SB 618 would create a new process to allow some landowners on farmland that clearly is marginally productive or physically impaired to rescind their Williamson Act contracts, provided the land is enrolled in a newly created solar-use easement. The bill also requires a management plan describing how the soil will be managed during the life of the solar-use easement, how impacts to adjacent agricultural operations will be minimized and, where appropriate, how the land will be restored to its previous general condition, as it existed at the time of project approval, upon the termination of the solar easement.

Ultimately, the bill will encourage job creation, help the state reach its energy and environmental goals and help ensure that California continues to feed the nation by protecting our most valuable agricultural lands—a win-win-win scenario.

I would like to thank the Farm Bureau for its support for both SB 489 and SB 618, which each received overwhelming, bipartisan approval from my colleagues in the Legislature and now await action on the governor's desk, and I encourage you to contact Gov. Brown and urge him to sign these measures into law.

(State Senator Lois Wolk, D-Davis, represents the 5th District, which includes Yolo County and portions of Sacramento, San Joaquin and Solano counties.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.