Commentary: Amid solar energy rush, let's protect our farmlands
By Mike Wade
Excellent soils and a Mediterranean climate make California one of the most productive agricultural centers in the world, allowing our state to produce two-thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts, and one-third of its vegetables. Not making the best use of this unique agricultural resource would be a big mistake.
Yet, the U.S Department of Agriculture says California lost 1 million acres of irrigated farmland between 1997 and 2017. After years of failures to build new state water storage infrastructure, another 1.2 million acres were fallowed in 2021 and 2022 alone due to drought and water shortages, according to the University of California, Merced.
For generations, much of the lost farmland has been attributed to urban or suburban development, a reality that will continue as the state’s population keeps growing. Now there is a significant new threat to farmlands: California’s desire to build a massive amount of new solar facilities.
In 2018, the California Legislature passed Senate Bill 100, the 100 Percent Clean Energy Act. It sets a 2045 target date of supplying all retail electricity sold in California and state agency electricity needs, with renewable and zero-carbon energy resources. This new electricity will come from solar, wind and geothermal sources. Solar facilities are expected to account for 81.1% of the total.
California will need to add about 70 gigawatts, or 70,000 megawatts, of new commercial solar generation by 2045 to meet the legislative target. The California Energy Commission says it requires between 7 and 10 acres of solar to generate 1 megawatt of electricity, meaning the state will need 490,000 to 700,000 acres of land to achieve the goal.
Does that mean productive farmland will be the only location for new solar facilities? Not necessarily. In fact, farmland already fallowed due to a lack of water or retired because of soil quality and drainage concerns could provide much of the land needed for new solar facilities.
An October staff report to the state energy commission identified areas where solar cannot be built, including population centers, military installations, tribal lands and property set aside for environmental protection, mining or other uses. That left much of the remaining allowable land for solar production in agricultural areas, including much of the Central Valley and the Salinas, Imperial and Palo Verde valleys.
There is significant interest in farmland that could be fallowed due to California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. In its report, the Public Policy Institute of California said, “In the San Joaquin Valley, this will likely mean taking more than 500,000 acres of agricultural land out of intensive irrigated production.” That is in addition to land already fallowed.
However, it is important to remember that much of the farmland expected to go out of production was at one time sustainably farmed using groundwater resources because adequate surface water supplies helped replenish the aquifer. Due to periodic droughts, inadequate infrastructure and water policies limiting surface water deliveries, the declining level of surface water delivered during the last 30 years has contributed directly to current levels of overdraft.
California’s intent should be to build solar facilities on previously retired land and, if additional property is required, to use only land that will be fallowed due to state’s groundwater law. Otherwise, unless California finds a way to use solar development in some way to support its remaining agricultural land, who will grow the food that feeds much of America and the world?
The California Energy Commission says it will make every effort to put new solar facilities on the least productive land possible. But solar facilities depend on transmission capabilities to move electricity from where it is generated to where it will be used. Existing transmission lines aren’t currently in all areas the commission identified for potential solar development. That means there is a potential loss of higher-value farmland.
The commission can work to minimize this by talking to local planners and agricultural advisors, such as county agricultural commissioners and University of California Cooperative Extension specialists. Those experts can provide valuable advice when decisions are being made on where to locate new solar facilities.
California’s agricultural viability has been taken for granted far too long. In the future, we may wish we had taken better care of our farmland and the farmers who grow our food. We shouldn’t waste precious, dwindling agricultural acreage, especially not when we can support sustainable solar energy production while also protecting our remaining farmland.
Throughout California’s history, development has shaped the kind of state in which we live. Developing new sources of renewable energy is good and deserves support. However, we shouldn’t try to fix our energy problem by creating an even bigger food problem.
(Mike Wade is executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)