A false choice between food and renewable energy is playing out in our Central Valley. Fresno County Supervisors made a significant decision last week in approving a large solar project sited on prime farmland near Interstate 5. The project will generate 18 megawatts of solar power and cover 90 acres of high-value agricultural land – ending its use for food production.
The Fresno county’s planners and agriculture advisory committee argued that such large projects should be placed on less arable land. The Fresno County Farm Bureau also opposed the plan. But after considerable industry pressure, the Board disagreed and the project was approved.
California should aggressively move ahead with reaching its renewable energy targets. After all, California agriculture has a lot to lose if the worst impacts of climate change are not averted. But it shouldn’t come at the cost of sacrificing land that is needed for food production for generations to come.
There is no question that there is a role for farmlands in producing clean energy, and California farmers lead the way among their peers nationwide.
The USDA’s On-Farm Renewable Energy Production Survey reported that California farms produce 25 percent of the country’s on-farm renewable power generation, with almost 2,000 farm-based generators using mainly solar photovoltaics, thermal solar and wind. A CalCAN-sponsored bill (SB 489), which is now before the Governor for his signature, will remove some barriers to using agricultural by-products, like nut shells and orchard and vineyard prunings, to generate renewable energy. On-farm renewable energy projects integrated into farming operations — such as rooftop solar mounted on farm buildings and wind turbines combined with cattle ranching — augment farming operations and help farmers cut costs so they can stay in business. This is in sharp contrast to mega-projects like the one approved in Fresno that displace farmland and farmers.
There is no shortage of urban and rural rooftop space that can be deployed for solar power generation in a decentralized but coordinated fashion, a much preferable alternative to land grabs by solar power companies and utilities that disregard the impacts on agriculture and what that means for all of us as food consumers.