In the debate pitting photovoltaic power stations against agriculture, all eyes have been on California's Fresno County, where the abundance of sunshine that make it the No. 1 agriculture-producing county in the nation also make it ideal for solar arrays.
This week Fresno County, with 29 projects on 11,000 acres in the pipeline, approved its plan to balance food security with green energy with a decision that falls short of what both sides wanted.
Under the new regulations, authorities will consider the prior agricultural productivity of farmland in deciding whether to issue conditional use permits for projects on that land, but they will not automatically direct development to marginal and retired land lacking adequate water supplies, as farm organizations had wanted.
"Let's not just give away the store," said Chris Scheuring, attorney with the California Farm Bureau Federation, who compares it to the historic loss of fisheries. "We did that with salmon 50 years ago when we built those dams. Farmland today is salmon to me."
County officials felt that guidelines that would have given preference to marginal land over prime land would have required more intensive study. The county will make case-by-case decisions before issuing permits.
"Just because it's not easily farmable doesn't mean it's perfect for solar," said the county's principal planner, Will Kettler. "There could be biological impacts we haven't discovered. But if it's valuable crop land that will be taken into consideration."
Some on the board of supervisors view solar as the economic wave of the future, providing increased tax revenues and hundreds of construction jobs. County assessor Paul Dictos, however, told the officials that the number of jobs created by solar development are temporary, while agriculture generates 64 jobs for every 1,000 acres planted.
"Once constructed, a couple of people with a sponge and a squeegee are all that's needed," Kettler said. "The board knew this."
Environmental obstacles to solar keep popping up in places like California's expansive Mojave Desert. Developers now are eyeing farmland as easier places to build because plowing and planting thwarts endangered species such as kit foxes and kangaroo rats from taking up residence.
That means California laws such as the Williamson Act that protect prime soils from development are being challenged by some local governments that are issuing temporary use permits for the arrays with the idea that the land could be returned to production down the road. The expected lifetime for a solar development is about the same as an almond orchard — 30 years.
The issue is critically important in a county with an annual agricultural production of $5.8 billion and an economy dependent upon packing, shipping and growing hundreds of products. Having thousands of acres of farms uninterrupted by development is what makes Fresno County and the southern San Joaquin Valley such a strong agricultural region, said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau.
"In a perfect world, all of these projects would be slated together for retired land or non-prime land in the county," said Jacobsen. "When you start piece-mealing these things throughout the county, you're setting up future conflicts."
Jacobsen is hopeful that the new guidelines will be used to protect farming.
"We're hoping that with the guidelines in place we're able to truly analyze on a case-by-case basis and stop those that take prime land out of protection and protect it," he said.
A joint policy paper issued last year by the law schools at UCLA and UC-Berkeley says that California must balance a secure national food supply and energy production by identifying marginal farmland and guiding solar development to it or risk consequences. The state lost 200,000 acres of irrigated farmland to development between 2006 and 2008, and 1.3 million acres since 1984.
Critics of the supervisors' decision point out that the region has 200,000 acres of retired land contaminated with selenium perfectly suited for sun energy.
The state farm bureau has a lawsuit pending in Fresno County Superior Court challenging an earlier county decision to allow a solar array project on prime land protected by the Williamson Act, a contract in California that sets artificially low tax rates for 10 years in exchange for keeping the land in agriculture. Scheuring says the law allows cancellation of the contract only if no other suitable land is available, and he hopes this first-of-its kind lawsuit becomes a test case to keep Williamson Act land off limits.
A judge is expected to decide next week whether the state farm bureau has the right to sue to challenge the county's decision to cancel the contract early on one 155-acre project on prime land, or whether such actions are reserved specifically for landowners. Scheuring said that if he loses the developer's motion to dismiss the case, he'll file in another county and attach a farmer's name to the case.
He hopes eventually to take the issue to the appellate level to force statewide policy.
"Some marvelous areas of farmland in this state have died the death of a thousand cuts," he said. "God gave us certain things on this earth — and I'm not sure my members would want me to say this — but we haven't always been wise in the past."