California farmers are planting solar panels as water supplies dry up
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
MARICOPA, Calif. — Jon Reiter banked the four-seat Cessna aircraft hard to the right, angling to get a better look at the solar panels glinting in the afternoon sun far below.
The silvery panels looked like an interloper amid a patchwork landscape of lush almond groves, barren brown dirt and saltbush scrub, framed by the blue-green strip of the California Aqueduct bringing water from the north. Reiter, a renewable energy developer and farmer, built these solar panels and is working to add a lot more to the San Joaquin Valley landscape.
“The next project is going to be 100 megawatts. It’s going to be five times this size,” Reiter said.
Solar energy projects could replace some of the jobs and tax revenues that may be lost as constrained water supplies force California’s agriculture industry to scale back. In the San Joaquin Valley alone, farmers may need to take more than half a million acres out of production to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which will ultimately put restrictions on pumping.
Converting farmland to solar farms also could be key to meeting California’s climate change targets. That’s according to a new report from the Nature Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit.
Working with the consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, the conservancy tried to figure out how California could satisfy its appetite for clean energy without destroying ecologically sensitive lands across the American West. The report lays out possible answers to one of the big questions facing renewable energy: Which areas should be dedicated to solar panels and wind turbines, and which areas should be protected for the sake of wildlife, outdoor recreation, farming and grazing?
One takeaway from the report, released this week: California will need hundreds or maybe thousands of square miles of solar power production in the coming decades — and it would make sense to build one-third to one-half of that solar capacity on agricultural lands, mostly within the state.