These solar panels are at the 45-megawatt generating facility operated by NRG Solar and Eurus Energy America Corp. in Avenal, Calif.

Apolinar Fonseca , Associated Press

California's rush to go solar threatens farm production

  • Article by: TRACIE CONE
  • Associated Press
  • February 4, 2013 - 7:35 PM

FRESNO, CALIF. - There's a land rush of sorts going on across the nation's most productive farming region, but these buyers don't want to grow crops. They want to plant solar farms.

With California mandating that 33 percent of electricity be generated from renewables by the end of the decade, there are 227 proposed solar projects in the pipeline statewide. Coupled with wind and other renewables, they would generate enough electricity to meet 100 percent of California's power needs on an average summer day, according to an estimate from the California Independent System Operator, a nonprofit charged with managing the flow of electricity along the long-distance power lines that make up the bulk of the state's transmission system.

And new applications for solar projects keep arriving.

Developers are flocking to flat farmland near power transmission lines, but agriculture interests, environmental groups and even the state are concerned that there is no official accounting of how much of the region's farmland is being taken out of production.

The California Department of Conservation, which is supposed to track development on privately held farmland, has been unable to do so because of staff and funding reductions.

Planning department records in four of the valley's biggest farming counties show about 100 solar generation plants already proposed on roughly 40,000 acres, or about the equivalent of 470 Disneyland theme parks.

Solar developers have focused on the southern San Joaquin Valley recently for the same reason as farmers: flat expanses of land and an abundance of sunshine. Land that has been tilled typically has fewer problems with endangered species than such places as the Mojave Desert, where an endangered tortoise slowed solar development on federal land.

Much of the solar development is proposed for Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Kings counties, which are home to more than 400 crops that pump $30 billion into the economy and help sustain U.S. food security.

In January, the American Farmland Trust, which monitors how much of the nation's farmland is absorbed by development, released a report projecting that by 2050 more than 570,000 acres in the region could be lost to development. The trust is trying to monitor farmland losses due to housing, solar development, a warming climate, cyclical drought and farm water rationing to protect endangered fish, plus development of a high-speed rail system.

"These are things that don't make headlines, but come under the category that you don't know what you've got until it's gone," said Ed Thompson of American Farmland Trust.

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