State energy report viewed as 'positive step'
By Christine Souza
The final version of the California Energy Commission biannual report, approved by the commission last week, recommends strategies to increase renewable-energy generation that include identifying and prioritizing geographic areas for development, and recommends limiting energy development to marginal agricultural land.
The Final 2012 Integrated Energy Policy Report update serves as a planning document intended to guide government agencies in policy and decision making, according to Karen Norene Mills, California Farm Bureau Federation associate counsel and public utilities department director.
"The real test will be how the articulated strategies are carried forward as renewable projects are considered in order to achieve the identified goal of minimizing development on productive agricultural land," Mills said. "It is certainly a positive step to recognize the importance of finding tools to achieve the renewable goals of the state without undermining important state goals to preserve productive agricultural land."
The purpose of the report is to forecast energy supply and demand, offer evaluations of the most current and pressing energy issues facing the state and develop strategies to address those issues. A focus of the 2012 report is renewable energy and how to help California meet its Renewables Portfolio Standard target of 33 percent renewable electricity by 2020 and support higher targets in the future.
As an action step, the report recommends collaborating with the state Department of Conservation Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program to identify areas that meet the criteria of Senate Bill 618, which became law in 2011 and is meant to encourage locating utility-scale solar energy facilities on other than prime agricultural land and land restricted by Williamson Act contracts.
In comments submitted to the CEC in December, CFBF pointed out that as of the end of February 2012, in four Central Valley counties—Tulare, Kings, Fresno and Kern—approximately 41,000 acres of agricultural land was implicated for proposed solar projects, the vast majority of which was classified by the Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program as "important farmland," meaning prime farmland, farmland of statewide importance and unique farmland.
John Gamper, CFBF director of taxation and land use, noted that SB 618 is a necessary tool in the protection of prime and important farmland.
"The Legislature spoke pretty loudly when it approved SB 618 to allow Williamson Act contracts to be rescinded, provided the land is marginally productive or physically impaired," Gamper said. "It's a tip of the hat to the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of acres of impaired ground in the Central Valley that could be used for utility-scale solar, not to mention all of the public land and the desert land.
"To have a land rush on prime farmland with good water simply because it is close to (utility) interconnection, be it a substation or underneath a power line corridor, that's just not good planning; that's just a free-for-all," Gamper added.
In identifying preferred geographic areas for renewable development, the Energy Commission report suggests that the process begin in the Central Valley, which is "experiencing a high volume of permitting and interconnection requests, particularly from photovoltaic projects that pose significant land use and environmental challenges." The report indicates that this provides an opportunity to "capitalize on repurposing retired agricultural lands, such as lands in the Westlands Water District, for renewable energy development."
The report notes that "priority areas should have high levels of renewable resources, be located where development will have the least environmental impact, and be close to planned, existing, or approved transmission or distribution infrastructure." The plan calls for a comprehensive planning process to provide "effective protection and conservation of sensitive habitats and key agricultural areas."
The report adds that "development of renewable energy zones would provide utilities with increased certainty about where new generation projects will be built."
To view the Final 2012 Integrated Energy Policy Report update, go to www.energy.ca.gov/2012_energypolicy/index.html.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.