Tulare County changes solar farm policy

February 28, 2013

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Atwell Island, near Alpaugh, is one of the solar plants covered by the new solar plan approved by the Board of Supervisors. / submitted.

David Castellon, Visalia Times-Delta, Feb 27, 2013

There is less land in unincorporated Tulare County where solar farms can be built after the Board of Supervisors voted to change the county’s policy.

As a result, the 370,250 acres of agriculturally-zoned land in the county where solar farms were unlikely to be permitted before Tuesday’s vote by the supervisors has been increased by an additional 283,7999 acres.

That leaves nearly 188,000 acres of unincorporated agriculturally-zoned land where the county would be likely to allow solar projects.

Those changes are based on recommendations by the county’s Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, a group of farmers and others involved in the agricultural industry that the supervisors asked in December to review the county’s policy on where utility-scale solar farms — those intended to provide energy to regional electrical grids or communities — could be built.

The board’s request was triggered by members of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, who were concerned that the solar policy the supervisors approved in 2010 didn’t do enough to prohibit construction of solar energy operations on prime farmland.

That policy stated that the board would “not necessarily support” prohibiting solar farm construction on prime farmland, and most of the more than 1,900 acres where the county has approved 17 utility-scale solar farms are on non-prime land.

All are in various stages of development, including the 160-acre Atwell Island solar farm near Alpaugh, which has been built and will be the first to go online once Pacific Gas and Electric gives approval, said Mike Washam, the county’s economic development director.

“We are concerned that the non-prime ‘case by case’ [consideration] approach is not yet clearly defined for prime farm lands, and we strongly discourage the county from permitting any solar development on lands that can support viable agriculture production,” states a letter the Farm Bureau sent to the county Planning Commission in September.

The Farm Bureau doesn’t object to building solar farms on non-prime land, where water and soil conditions are so bad that it may not be viable to successfully farm there.

Washam, who also is the county’s liaison to the Agricultural Policy Advisory Committee, said the group discussed the county’s solar farm policy and recommended changes that included:

• • Solar farms should not be built within the urban growth and development boundaries around each Tulare County’s cities, or in the development boundaries around small communities that the county has designated as “hamlets.”

• Solar farms should be close to electrical grids, corridors for electrical lines, electric sub stations or end users.

• The county shouldn’t support solar farm development on land designated by the State Farmland Mapping and Monitoring Program as prime farmland or on land designated as having class 1 soil by the California Natural Resources Conservation Service.

• The county should include land where any permanent crops have been grown in the last 10 years and citrus and olive groves along along Tulare County’s citrus belt — which runs along the east end of the county — as being “constrained” from solar development.

• The county should not support removal of permanent crops to make room for solar projects if there is sufficient water to continue farming, regardless of soil classifications. Analysis that looks at water sources and availability for the land would have to be conducted.

• Analyze the potential effects of a solar farms on neighboring agricultural farms and mitigate them.

Washam said the committee worked with the county Resource Management Agency and the Farm Bureau to develop the recommendations.

“This is more to what I understand is protecting viable farm ground than we had before,” count Supervisor Allen Ishida said before he and his fellow supervisors voted unanimously to make the recommended changes part of the county’s solar policy.

Ishida is a former citrus grower and a long-time advocate of farmland preservation.

“I’m very pleased. Because this really reflects, I think, a much more comprehensive land-preservation policy for the county,” Patricia Stever Blattler, the Farm Bureau’s executive director, said of the board’s vote.

“The biggest change is solar sites will not be supported in farmland planted with permanent crops,” such as grape vines, tree fruits and nuts, Washam said.

He said the the land along the citrus belt was added because citrus and olive trees can grow in poorer-quality soil than row crops, if enough water is available.

Of the 17 solar projects approved by the county, two would not meet the new criteria, but they will not be affected by the policy changes, Washam said. He added that three other solar projects awaiting county approval meet the new criteria.

The solar policy changes don’t affect solar projects within cities or solar projects powering individual buildings, farms, dairies or other businesses in the unincorporated county.

And the changes in solar policy may not have much effect in the future.

“I think we have actually seen the big boom in solar that is going to want to locate here, so I don’t know if these policies, at this point, will have an impact on solar development,” Stever Blattler said.

That boom was driven by a 2008 directive to increase the ratio of California’s electricity coming from from renewable sources, including, solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydroelctric power.

Since then, private companies have been working to build solar and wind farms in various parts of the state — including Tulare County — with plans to sell the electricity they generate to electrical utility companies.

And the projects in development across California could generate three times as much electricity as the state needs to reach it 33 percent renewable-energy goal by 2020, said Hector Uriarte, the green jobs coordinator for Proteus, Inc.

The Visalia-based jobs training program has trained more than 450 people in solar installation jobs, and many of them have worked on building solar farms in the south Valley.

“If anything, we are reaching the end of the road for the projects coming through,” Uriarte said, adding that “The ones here are going to go forward.”


Effective Protection in farmland conservation

February 27, 2013

By ADMIN| Published: FEBRUARY 26, 2013

PRESS RELEASE

Former USDA Deputy Secretary and Co-Chair of AGree Jim Moseley Makes Case  for Attaching Compliance to Crop Insurance in Next Farm Bill

Washington, D.C., Feb. 26, 2013—Over the last 25 years, one of the least-publicized farmland conservation efforts has actually been one of the most effective, says a new report by former USDA Deputy Secretary and Co-Chair of AGree Jim Moseley. Conservation Compliance: A 25-Year Legacy of Stewardship explains how conservation compliance, which has historically required farmers to implement conservation measures in return for federally funded farm support, helped save millions of wetland acres while keeping billions of tons of soil on farms. As a result, millions of marginal, erosion-prone lands have remained healthy and productive.

“Few conservation programs can boast the success rate of conservation compliance,” said Moseley, who served as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture from 2001 to 2005. “This program has helped farmers save 295 million tons of soil per year and kept an estimated 1.5 million to 3.3 million acres of vulnerable wetlands from being drained. The results of this compact between farmers and taxpayers have been astounding.”

The report urges Congress to reattach conservation compliance to crop insurance premium assistance in the next farm bill reauthorization.  As federal farm policy is updated, it is increasingly likely that some commodity programs will be phased out in favor of a strengthened crop insurance program that is becoming the core component of the farm safety net. Therefore, according to Moseley, it seems essential that conservation compliance also be updated to apply to the crop insurance premium assistance.

“As Congress reauthorizes the farm bill, it is important that the conservation gains made over the last 25 years be retained,” said Moseley. “Unless included in the ongoing farm bill discussions, there is a possibility that, for the first time in a quarter century, conservation compliance provisions will no longer be attached to the largest federal payment program supporting producers.”

In addition to highlighting the successes of conservation compliance, the report dispels several myths about conservation compliance and presents key facts about the program, including:

  • Conservation compliance is a reasonable expectation in exchange for the significant safety-net benefits the public provides for producers.
  • Most producers are already in compliance.
  • Re-attaching crop insurance premiums to conservation compliance will lead to minimal administrative burden.
  • Conservation compliance includes common-sense protections for farmers.
  • Conservation compliance saves money.

Visit http://www.farmbillfacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Conservation-Compliance-Legacy.pdf to download the full report.


CA farmland getting gobbled up by solar projects

February 4, 2013

By TRACIE CONE

Published: Feb 2, 2013


FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2011 file photo, solar panels are seen at the NRG Solar and Eurus Energy America Corp.’s 45-megawatt solar farm in Avenal, 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. Instead developers are looking to plant solar voltaic cells to generate electricity for a state mandated to get 33 percent from renewables by the end of the decade. (AP Photo/The Sentinel, Apolinar Fonseca, File)

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) – 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, the California Independent System Operator says.

And new applications for 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 this important agricultural region’s farmland is being taken out of production.

“”We’ve been trying to get a handle on the extent of this for quite a while now,” said Ed Thompson of American Farmland Trust, which monitors how much of the nation’s farmland is absorbed by development.

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, officials say.

“I’d love to say we have all of that information, but we really don’t,” said Molly Penberth, manager of the land resource protection division. “We’re going to play catch up getting that information, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.”

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. Planners in Fresno County say their applications for solar outnumber the ones they received for housing developments during the boom days.

Solar developers have focused on the southern San Joaquin Valley over the past three years for the same reason as farmers: flat expanses of land and an abundance of sunshine. Land that has been tilled most often has fewer issues with endangered species than places such 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 farmland trust released a report projecting that by 2050 more than 570,000 acres across the region could be lost to development as the Central California population explodes. Farmland losses due to housing, solar development, a warming climate, cyclical drought and ongoing farm water rationing to protect endangered fish, plus the state’s signature transportation project – the High Speed Rail – are all issues the trust is trying to monitor.

“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,” Thompson said.

No statewide plan or policy exists to direct projects to areas where land is marginal for farming and power transmission lines exist or can be easily routed, though groups as diverse as the Defenders of Wildlife and the independent state oversight agency Little Hoover Commission have issued studies calling for one.

Projects are approved by elected county boards of supervisors, or if larger than 50 MW, the California Energy Commission.

“There’s no consistent approach” county to county in deciding what gets approved on farmland, said Kate Kelly, a planning consultant who is studying the environmental impact of valley projects for Defenders of Wildlife.

While one of the nation’s leading solar trade groups has not taken an official position on conversion of farmland to solar, Katherine Gensler of the Solar Energy Industries Association says more thought must go into location.

The largest solar facility operating so far covers 500 acres 60 miles northwest of Bakersfield and produces enough electricity for 36,000 homes.

Just three weeks into 2013, five valley farmers have told the Department of Conservation that they want to cancel low agriculture tax rate contracts to develop solar on their property. None takes advantage of a year-old law making it easier to cancel on marginal land, Penberth said.

County boards of supervisors are attracted to the promise of clean energy construction jobs. Some of the projects are on prime land as small as 20 acres, some on habitat shared by threatened or endangered species such as the kit fox, Swainson’s hawk and blunt nose lizard. The 9,000-acre Maricopa Sun project in western Kern County is on prime land that the county says lacks a reliable water supply.

Almost always developers chose sites because there’s a willing seller in the vicinity of existing transmission lines, experts say.

Transmission is the biggest reason for the holdup of a massive project that energy planners, agriculture interests and environmentalists agree is perfectly situated – the Westlands Solar Park in remote Kings and Fresno counties. It’s planned for 47 square miles of farmland fallowed because of high levels selenium in the soil.

Developers say the project ultimately could provide 2.7 gigawatts of electricity – enough for 2.7 million homes. But the wait for approval from the California Independent System Operator to tap into transmission lines for a large project proved too long so they got out. For now.

“We realized it would be a seven-to-10 year process,” said Joshua Martin, the solar company’s chief financial officer. “We could easily have spent $7 million in fees to stay in line, but it doesn’t make good business sense. It’s a messy market right now and things need to calm down.”

Ten years might be wishful thinking. An email the ISO sent to stakeholders on Jan. 18 said that it could be 12 years or longer before the needed upgrades in transmission infrastructure could be complete for solar projects currently waiting for transmission hookups in the Fresno area.

Westlands Solar Park is betting that environmental obstacles and connection costs will force many of the projects in the pipeline statewide to be abandoned. But what they’re hoping in the meantime is that state regulators eventually will direct solar development away from prime farmland.

Next month the California Energy Commission is set to make a move in that direction with adoption of a report that will recommend a coordinated approach placing solar in “zones with minimal environmental or habitat value,” near existing or planned electric system infrastructure. The agency would also collaborate with the Department of Conservation to identify areas of the state with marginal land.

Martin says the move likely is too late to help the projects that are stalled and in danger of missing out on federal tax incentives that expire in 2016.

“Someone needs to take a role and say what lines should be built and which aren’t in the state’s best interest,” said Martin. “So far we have been underwhelmed.”

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