By Andrew Cohen
It’s easy to convince people that more solar energy projects will help California meet its ambitious goal of producing half of its electricity demand from renewable sources by 2030. The hard part is reaching consensus on exactly where those projects should be located.
A new report co-authored by Ethan Elkind, director of Berkeley Law’s Climate Change and Business Program, identifies “least-conflict lands” in the San Joaquin Valley that could be used to develop solar facilities. Such lands present no or minimal conflicts with agricultural or environmental conservation. The report aims to provide instructive data to help reduce land-use conflicts among stakeholders associated with the siting of solar projects—and to expedite those efforts.
Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) partnered with the Conservation Biology Institute (CBI) and Terrell Watt Planning Associates to lead this endeavor, with help from the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and the California Energy Commission. Last June, they began exploring how multiple, diverse parties could quickly—within six months—identify least-conflict lands for solar photovoltaic (solar PV) development.
The team first convened four main stakeholder groups with competing needs: environmental conservation, agricultural farmland conservation and the electric power and solar energy industries. Project leaders also engaged agricultural rangeland stakeholders and consulted with military representatives and tribal governments. The collective goal: ascertaining how best to balance renewable energy interests with agricultural interests and wildlife conservation needs.
“In certain ways, the process was like a giant advance mediation,” Elkind said. “We got groups together that, in some cases, are suing each other, in order to get their proposals on the table for siting solar PV development. We tried to be as inclusive and transparent as possible.”
The valley’s temperate climate and high solar insolation has attracted investment in more than 120 solar energy facilities that are either operating or being planned. However, the region is also home to some of the world’s richest, most productive farmland and contains imperiled plants, animals and natural habitats.
Mapping a path forward
Project leaders first analyzed what policy incentives and regulatory changes might be needed to steer solar development to the least-conflict lands. CBI then used advanced software to generate maps that pinpointed the high- and low-priority land areas for each stakeholder group. By combining the results of the mapping exercises, the team identified 470,000 acres that could be appropriate for solar PV in the San Joaquin Valley.
“It’s enough land to cover all of California’s peak electricity needs 1.5 times over, or 23 million homes,” Elkind explained. “In short, it’s more clean power than we need for the whole state, just from the valley. Of course, not all of this land will be feasible or ideal for solar PV upon closer inspection, but even a fraction would be pretty incredible.”
CLEE advisory board member Ken Alex, senior advisor to Gov. Jerry Brown and director of his Office of Planning and Research, hopes to extend the new land-search template throughout the state. “This approach works,” he said. “It is now incumbent upon us to take advantage of it.”
To fast-track more solar facilities, Elkind said policymakers should take the newly identified least-conflict lands, and the stakeholder momentum behind them, and “integrate these findings into the current energy and transmission planning processes. The state will also need to develop permitting incentives for solar companies that seek to develop projects on these lands.”
CLEE began working on this issue in 2011 with UCLA Law, with support from Bank of America. The schools’ joint report titled “Harvesting Clean Energy” helped lead to Senate Bill 618 (Wolk), which aims to relieve some permitting challenges for solar PV projects on marginal farmland.
Today, the biggest hurdle to expanding those efforts in the San Joaquin Valley is a lack of transmission lines to certain areas, which can take decades to plan and build. Clearing that hurdle will require more productive collaborations—and more unlikely bedfellows.
“We hope the state will support efforts to replicate this stakeholder mapping process in other parts of California and, eventually, for a multi-state effort,” Elkind said. “Getting this kind of advance input about where we should be putting clean technologies will be critical throughout the western U.S. And it will eventually go beyond just siting solar panels—we’ll need to site transmission lines and energy storage facilities and other clean technologies as well.”