News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

A Critical Eye Toward Solar on Farms But Not Deserts

Not necessarily the kind of farm some people have in mind | Photo: Petor Smit/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As increasing numbers of developers turn their eyes toward California's farmland for potential conversion to solar facilities, a bit of pushback is developing. Farmland preservation groups are raising the alarm that viable, productive farm fields are in danger of being lost to arrays of solar panels. A recent article in the Associated Press by reporter Tracie Cone summarizes the arguments quite well. For those who've expressed similar concerns over loss of desert habitat and other wildlands to solar developers, the arguments are quite familiar.

And yet there's a big difference in the reaction to the farmland preservation activists: they aren't being dismissed as obstructionists, climate change deniers, or NIMBYs.

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Cone's article does a great job summarizing the nuances of the issue. Farmland is by its very nature disturbed land, but some of it is still habitat for wildlife, and some -- the selenium-contaminated Westlands area, home to the now-mothballed 2.5 gigawatt Westlands Solar Park proposal -- isn't of much use for anything but solar. A variety of forces ranging from economic and political to infrastructural have guided developers to farmland that might conceivably be best used as farmland. County pols anxious to increase their tax base and employment rates often have personal incentives to approve ill-thought-out projects.

Cone gives a sympathetic ear to those worried about solar development's cumulative impact on the state's farmland, especially in the Central Valley:

In January, the [American 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," [the farmland trust's Ed] Thompson said.

In Cone's piece, and in the discussion that has followed it, a few kinds of comments were notable by their absence. At least as far as we've seen, no one argued that we need to develop all the farmland we can in solar because climate change would kill that farmland anyway. (Which is especially true in the Central Valley, unless you're farming bass.) No one has accused the American Farmland Trust of being stooges for Big Coal, or of being "useful idiots" for fossil fuel interests. No one has accused locals wanting to preserve useful farmland of NIMBYism. At least not that we've seen here at ReWire.

That absence of destructive, unhelpful arguments is a wonderful development. The issues are complex; land use issues almost always are. We live in a democracy, and until that changes, hearing from people with varying and occasionally conflicting interests will always be part of the process of figuring out what to put where, and when.

So why doesn't that same courtesy extend to those who make arguments in favor of protecting irreplaceable desert habitat? Over the last four years, more and more people are willing to concede that desert habitats may have greater value in unbulldozed form than after they've been replaced by solar or wind developments. The desert's fan base is growing.

But to judge from emailed missives ReWire's gotten even within the last two months, there are still those who think any hesitation in paving over any suitable sunny spot in the desert should be considered a crime against humanity.

If that's the case, why then are those same people seemingly deferent to farmland's right to exist?

Self-interest is likely part of it: even those who see no value in deserts still eat vegetables and wear cotton.

Consider this, though. Protecting farmland is a crucial issue, and we don't wish to downplay its importance even a little. But if at some point in the future we decide a 1,000-acre solar panel array built on Stanislaus County farmland was a bad idea, we could conceivably restore that to working farmland. It would take work, and money, and time. We'd have to account for industrial chemicals used on site and restore the structure of the impacted soil. But given time and tools and compost, a farmer can make a thriving farm out of a former asphalt parking lot.

We cannot, by contrast, restore 1,000 acres of old-growth desert habitat quite so easily. Once we scrape that away, it's gone.

ReWire tips its metaphorical hat to those in Cone's article who work to keep the process of solar development fair to the interests of healthy farmland. As we develop California's solar future, they're helping to keep us honest about the costs. We just hope that deserts start to enjoy the same credibility soon.

ReWire is dedicated to covering renewable energy in California. Keep in touch by liking us on Facebook, and help shape our editorial direction by taking this quick survey here.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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It may be worth considering that not all that long ago the "Westlands" was a paradise. The largest body of fresh water west of the Mississippi was found there. Indigenous peoples and migratory creatures alike made an annual journey to its shores and shared in what it offered. Before the flows were impeded, the Southern Sierra rivers that drained into the Tulare Lake did a job that has not been accomplished since and may never happen again; flush accumulating selenium salts into the ocean.

There was a time when "Westlands" was confronted with many of the same issues facing the deserts of the Southwest--it was a dynamic and unique habitat not easily replaced. Moreover, upon seeing it, some industrious folks thought there is'nt much use here for anything but... and a special place has faded into a lost memory.

The farmlands and deserts of California are both treasures. Both offer unique sustenance for the greater well being. While it is true that desert habitat cannot be restored as easily as farmland, it is unfortunate that either is being unnecessarily targeted. The nexus for these energy developments, and, motivations for them is the same in both; the centrally controlled provision of energy. At best, a scheme offering a tiny glimmer of hope towards greater sustainability. Sadly, in converting both of these valuable places into industrial energy facilities, a more benevolent type of power has needlessly become destructive and a mighty price tag has been placed upon it.