Tulare County changes solar farm policy

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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.”

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