[env-trinity] N.Y. Times 8/10/10

Byron Leydecker bwl3 at comcast.net
Wed Aug 11 16:25:05 PDT 2010

Recycling Land for Green Energy Ideas
N.Y. Times-8/10/10
By Todd Woody
Thousands of acres of farmland here in the San Joaquin Valley have been
removed from agricultural production, largely because the once fertile land
is contaminated by salt buildup from years of irrigation. 
But large swaths of those dry fields could have a valuable new use in their
future - making electricity. 
Farmers and officials at Westlands Water District, a public agency that
supplies water to farms in the valley, have agreed to provide land for what
would be one of the world's largest solar energy complexes, to be built on
30,000 acres. 
At peak output, the proposed Westlands Solar Park would generate as much
electricity as several big nuclear power plants. 
Unlike some renewable energy projects blocked by objections that they would
despoil the landscape, this one has the support of environmentalists. 
The San Joaquin initiative is in the vanguard of a new approach to locating
renewable energy projects: putting them on polluted or previously used land.
The Westlands project has won the backing of groups that have opposed
building big solar projects in the Mojave Desert and have fought Westlands
for decades over the district's water use. Landowners and regulators are on
board, too. 
"It's about as perfect a place as you're going to find in the state of
California for a solar project like this," said Carl Zichella, who until
late July was the Sierra Club's Western renewable programs director.
"There's virtually zero wildlife impact here because the land has been
farmed continuously for such a long time and you have proximity to
transmission, infrastructure and markets." 
Recycling contaminated or otherwise disturbed land into green energy
projects could help avoid disputes when developers seek to build sprawling
arrays of solar collectors and wind turbines in pristine areas, where they
can affect wildlife and water supplies. 
The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the National Renewable
Energy Laboratory, for instance, are evaluating a dozen landfills and toxic
waste sites for wind farms or solar power plants. In Arizona, the Bureau of
Land Management has begun a program to repurpose landfills and abandoned
mines for renewable energy. 
In Southern California, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has
proposed building a 5,000-megawatt solar array complex, part of which would
cover portions of the dry bed of Owens Lake, which was drained when the city
began diverting water from the Owens Valley in 1913. 
Having already spent more than $500 million to control the intense dust
storms that sweep off the lake, the agency hopes solar panels can hold down
the dust while generating clean electricity for the utility. A small pilot
project will help determine if solar panels can withstand high winds and
"Nothing about this is simple, but it's worth doing," Austin Beutner, the
department's interim general manager, said of the pilot program. 
All of the projects are in early stages of development, and many obstacles
remain. But the support they've garnered from landowners, regulators and
environmentalists has attracted the interest of big solar developers such as
SunPower and First Solar as well as utilities under pressure to meet
aggressive renewable energy mandates. 
Those targets have become harder to reach as the sunniest undeveloped land
is put off limits. 
Last December, Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced
legislation to protect nearly a million acres of the Mojave Desert from
renewable energy development. 
But the senator's bill also includes tax incentives for developers who build
renewable energy projects on disturbed lands. 
For Westlands farmers, the promise of the solar project is not clean
electricity, but the additional water allocations they will get if some land
is no longer used for farming. 
"Westlands' water supply has been chronically short over the past 18 years,
so one of the things we've tried to do to balance supply and demand is to
take land out of production," said Thomas W. Birmingham, general manager of
the water district, which acquired 100,000 acres and removed the land from
most agricultural production. "The conversion of district-owned lands into
areas that can generate electricity will help to reduce the cost of
providing water to our farmers." 
That is one reason the solar project has the support of farmers. Circling
above his 5,300 acres in a small plane recently, Mark Shannon gazed down on
rows of almond and pistachio trees surrounded by brown fields. With water
deliveries slashed because of drought and environmental disputes, he could
plant only 20 percent of his property with irrigated crops this year. 
"Come hell or high water, there just is not enough water to farm this whole
district," Mr. Shannon, 41, said. "If I lease my land for solar, we can farm
That morning, representatives of the water district, the Sierra Club, the
Natural Resources Defense Council and Westlands Solar Park, had gathered in
a field of dry-farmed wheat on his property to talk strategy. 
"We're holding Westlands up as a model to utilities, regulators and solar
developers on how to take pressure off undeveloped land and move projects
forward," said Helen O'Shea, deputy director of the N.R.D.C.'s Western
renewable energy project. 
Daniel Kim and Bob Dowds, the principals of Westside Holdings, the firm that
has proposed the Westlands Solar Park, said the first phase of the project
would consist of 9,000 acres leased from farmers. When covered in solar
panels, that acreage would generate 600 to 1,000 megawatts of electricity.
One megawatt is enough to power a Wal-Mart Supercenter. 
Westlands sits in a major transmission corridor, and existing capacity in
the area could realistically accommodate up to 600 megawatts from the
project, according to Mr. Dowds. Building out the solar park to 5,000
megawatts will require major upgrades to transmission lines and take more
than a decade. 
"You're talking about billions of dollars of investment, private and public
to make this really work at that scale," Mr. Dowds said. 
Brian McDonald, director of renewable resource development for Pacific Gas
and Electric, California's largest utility, said, "Right now, Westlands is a
concept we strongly support." However, he added that with such reuse
projects, "the proof is in the pudding - on the surface, they tend to look
simple but they realistically have a lot of hurdles to overcome to build
them out." 
SunPower, a Silicon Valley company that is one of the nation's largest solar
panel manufacturers and photovoltaic power plant developers, has had initial
discussions with Westlands Solar Park officials. "I think you'll see quite a
bit of solar there, and we certainly want to be a part of that," said Paul
McMillan, an executive with SunPower. 
Dave Kranz, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that
solar energy might make sense for Westlands, but added in an e-mail: "We
believe that farmland should be used for farming, and that productive
farmland is an environmental attribute as valuable as renewable energy
The pressure to reuse farmland for energy production is likely to
accelerate, though. The federal government wants Westlands to take another
100,000 acres out of production to ameliorate salt and selenium problems.
And Cadiz, a big California landowner, is considering converting more than
10,000 acres of farmland in the sun-soaked Mojave Desert for use as a solar
park, according to Richard E. Stoddard, chief of the Cadiz Real Estate unit.

For Mr. Shannon, whose family has farmed the land here for three
generations, going solar will allow him to continue farming on property he
owns on the other side of the valley. 
"We just want to get enough money to get the bank off our back," he said.
"We would love to stay here because this is some of the best dirt in the
world. But I can't farm myself out of this water problem."

Byron Leydecker, JcT

Chair, Friends of Trinity River

PO Box 2327

Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327

415 383 4810 land/fax

415 519 4810 mobile

bwl3 at comcast.net

bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org (secondary)

http://www.fotr.org <http://fotr.org/>  





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