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.”