Can solar energy development enhance the sustainability of groundwater in the San Joaquin Valley?

The San Joaquin Valley faces a massive land-use shift over the next two decades. Driving this change are two important but apparently unrelated laws: the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which aims to balance groundwater basins by the early 1940s, and SB 100, which aims to help California achieve clean energy 100% statewide by 2045. The SGMA may require resting at least 500,000 acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley (10%) by 2040. On the other hand, a significant expansion of solar production to meet SB 100 targets It will require a large amount of land. Fostering solar expansion of fallow farmland in the San Joaquin Valley could support two main goals simultaneously: supporting the state’s clean energy goals while easing the economic pain of moving some land away from farming.

Solar energy as an alternative to land use

Since last year, PPIC researchers have been working with a range of partners to identify agricultural land conversion solutions that have broad benefits to valley communities, the economy and the environment.

The development of solar energy is one such potential solution. Last week, we held a workshop with multiple stakeholders from government and local agencies, agriculture, community groups and the energy sector to discuss possible synergies in implementing the SGMA and SB 100.

This workshop focused on exploring the technical feasibility of large-scale conversion of cropland to solar energy. We aimed to help valley, state, and energy sector stakeholders advance their understanding of transforming farmland into the future with less irrigation, while meeting the state’s clean energy goals.

Massive building from renewable energy sources

With the SB 100, California set itself the daunting task of decarbonizing the power sector by the mid-1940s – roughly the same time frame as the SGMA. As one of the workshop participants said, “To reach our goals, we will need to build sustainable and unprecedented renewable energy sources.”

Solar power will be an important part of this build. The industry is growing fast: Solar development in the San Joaquin Valley is expected to more than double between now and 2030—and grow even faster thereafter. Three gigawatts (GW) have already been installed in the valley, with more than half of new arrays coming online in just the past five years. There is currently more than 20 gigawatts of additional solar capacity proposed but not yet built in the area.

The proposed solar expansion requires transmission enhancement

This proposed rapid construction faces some obstacles. As one of the workshop participants said, “Dispatch is the primary question.” In other words, solar energy can only be developed if it can connect to the transmission network and reach customers. In the San Joaquin Valley, most solar projects, including all large ones, are currently concentrated along the western side of the valley and in the south, where there is easier connectivity with higher voltage transmission lines. Even there, the transmission capacity of new solar projects is becoming scarce.

For the future development of solar energy to work, there must be physical proximity to the power substations, as well as the ability to connect. But this will require investment and planning: Upgrading transmission lines can be expensive, and bringing large new transmission projects online can take 10 years or more. When a project faces high linkage costs, it must be larger to fund it effectively; Without additional relocation, many projects would not be able to move forward due to these high costs. Several worthwhile projects could fall and the country could face challenges in achieving its clean energy goals.

The valley is attractive for solar energy, but land use coordination is a challenge

Some projections show that land needs may exceed 800,000 acres statewide. The valley has a lot to do, including high resource availability: a 2019 study found that even with strong habitat protection, up to 250,000 acres of farmland could be suitable in the valley. Over the next twenty years, it will also see an increase in land seeking productive uses that do not require irrigation.

However, it can be difficult to organize and coordinate landowners and developers without new investments in transportation. The large projects needed to finance the exorbitant connection costs require larger plots of land. The conglomeration of many smaller, contiguous plots creates challenges for developers, and the development of solar energy drives areas with larger plots that are easier to collect, but not always the best land to extract for agricultural production.

Given the current uncertainty about which areas might go out of production (many groundwater plans have yet to set clear paths to sustainability), it’s hard to know where all the smart offerings – to expand transmission and acquire land for solar development – will be. While many questions have been asked (and few have been resolved), it is extremely important to get these conversations started – because they relate to the future of not just the valley but the entire state. The next two decades will be time to move forward with the implementation of both SB 100 (2045) and SGMA (2040): aligning planning processes can bring benefits to both state-level energy consumers and valley stakeholders grappling with a massive land-use shift.

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