bee sweet citrus

The Bee Sweet Citrus facility in Fowler was one of the many industrial businesses that adopted solar power in 2017. Photo via Bee Sweet Citrus

published on December 19, 2017 - 4:49 PM
Written by David Castellon

The conflict of whether Central Valley farms should be used for solar farms may be unnecessary, say University of California researchers.

In a study released today, they concluded that in the Valley there is about 8,400 square kilometers — equal to 183,000 football fields — of land and space on agricultural buildings on which solar panels could be built rather than on land that could otherwise be used to grow food.

Sparked by the debate over whether solar farms are causing urban sprawl that is overtaking viable farmland, the UC Riverside and UC Davis researchers looked at the possibility of developing solar installations on a variety of “unconventional” sites in California’s Central Valley, according to a press release from UC officials.

“They focused on this region, which comprises 15 percent of California’s landmass, because it is an area where food production, urban development and conservation collide,” states the press release.

A big part of the problem is that even after farmland is done being used as a solar farm and the equipment is removed and the site restored, it may not be suitable to go back to farming, according to a written statement by Michael Allen, a distinguished professor emeritus of plant pathology and biology at UC Riverside and director of the university’s Center for Conservation Biology.

“That’s because flattening and compacting the land, as well as the long-term application of herbicides to keep the site clear of weeds, spoils the land for future farming,” he said. “For this reason, it is important that we explore alternative sites for new developments as the [solar] industry continues to grow.”

So the researchers evaluated four types of areas considered unconventional for installing solar systems:

  •  Developed areas within agricultural areas, including on rooftops, along transportation corridors and in parking lots
  •  Land that is too salty for crops to grow, either because of naturally occurring salts or from buildup stemming from human activities.
  •  Reclaimed areas previously contaminated with hazardous chemicals or from mining operations.
  •  Reservoirs and irrigation channels that can accommodate floating — “floatovoltaic” — solar panels.

“Contaminated sites typically left idle for extended periods of time have low economic value and are challenging to cultivate, none of which undermine their potential for solar energy development,” states the report, which also notes that floating solar panels can reduce evaporation, reduce algae growth and cool temperatures in the bodies of water on which they sit, which can include farm reservoirs.

Combined, the sites identified by the researchers have space to accommodate enough solar panels to generate electricity sufficient to exceed California’s 2015 projected demands by 13 times for photovoltaic (solar generated) power and two times the projected demand for concentrating solar power — solar-generated thermal energy, according to the press release.

“The study highlights the wealth of sites for solar energy generation that don’t conflict with farmland or protected areas,” Rebecca R. Hernandez, assistant professor of earth system science and ecology at UC Davis, also stated in the press release.

The researchers also put out a map of the Valley that shows the areas identified as good sites for solar farms based on the four categories.

The sites aren’t divided by counties.

“Since farming is an incredibly energy-intensive industry, the land-sparing sites we identified could provide a win-win situation for both farmers who need more energy and the energy providers that wish to serve them,” Hernandez’ statement continues.

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