California’s San Joaquin Valley looks to solar, not farming, as climate change worsens

California’s San Joaquin Valley will become increasingly difficult to farm as climate change intensifies. But with the right regulations and policies, the state’s multi-billion dollar agricultural belt could become something else — a clean energy powerhouse that the state desperately needs.

At a panel event on Tuesday, energy professionals and community leaders gave a glimpse of the valley’s potential future — one where alfalfa fields give way to solar farms and carbon is sequestered beneath fallowed orchards. They also acknowledged how daunting an economic transition it would be.

“It’s going to take strategic and collaborative planning at all levels [of government],” said Erica Brand, the project manager of land use and infrastructure policy at the California Energy Commission. The panel was hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan think tank that released an extensive report on valley solar development last month.

California produces more than 25 percent of the nation’s food supply, and over half of the state’s agricultural output comes from the San Joaquin Valley, a flat stretch of irrigated desert and prairie that’s one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. But as a historic drought continues, some farmers are struggling to find enough water for their crops.

In the San Joaquin Valley, agribusiness is increasingly relying on groundwater, and the valley is sinking at a rate of a foot per year in some places as farmers over-pump the aquifers. A growing number of small towns in the valley don’t have water at all. A 2019 study by the Water Policy Center found that valley farmers will need to fallow at least 500,000 acres — or more than 10 percent — of their land by 2040 to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), California’s flagship groundwater law.

Fallowing that much farmland could potentially devastate the valley’s rural economies, but according to the Water Policy Center’s most recent report, solar could offer a solution. Under California Senate Bill 100, all of the state’s electricity sales need to be either renewable or zero carbon by 2045, which will require an unprecedented level of solar development and hundreds of thousands of acres of land for solar farms. As landowners fallow their lettuce and tomato fields, they may find solar more lucrative than farming ever was. At Tuesday’s panel, report co-author Annabelle Rosser noted that solar can generate 2-5 times the returns of annual crops.

But the mass conversion of cropland into solar farms involves a dizzying number of bureaucratic challenges. On Tuesday, panelists noted that solar can only expand if state and local officials across dozens of agencies coordinate effectively.

Rosser and other panelists said that county-level officials need to identify farmland that will be fallowed and then communicate that decision to statewide agencies, so that energy companies can start building new transmission lines. Bureaucratic red tape and permitting needs to be simplified for California to build this infrastructure quickly. Dan Kim, the vice president of Golden State Clean Energy, noted that some solar projects in the state could take seven or eight years to complete, in part due to inefficient regulations and permitting processes.

While solar farms could be a cash cow for farmers, it’s unclear whether they would benefit farm communities. “It’s been something on the stove top for the past couple of decades,” said Rey Leon, the mayor of the valley community Huron,  “and I think there’s some fine tuning to do to make sure there’s equity.”

He added that the thousands of valley residents who work in agriculture but don’t own land will need job-training programs and apprenticeships to transition into the clean energy sector, and that communities like Huron are already among the poorest in the state.