Low on Water, California Farmers Turn to Solar Farming

Yves here. We pointed out years ago that potable water would be the first major natural resource to become scarce on a widespread basis. Consider this story today in the Guardian (hat tip resilc):

A handful of US states – including New Mexico and California – are facing significant strains on their water supplies that will only intensify with global heating, according to new rankings.

New Mexico tops the list and is the only state with “extremely high” pressures on its water availability. The state’s score is on par with the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and Eritrea in Africa, the World Resources Institute (WRI) found.

California ranks second, followed by Arizona, Colorado and Nebraska.

Even though the shift to solar farming described below could alleviate pressure in California, where farming is far and away the biggest use of water, the article implies that the water hogs are not (yet) converting in a meaningful way. Time for some Pigovian taxes.

By Nathanael Johnson (@savortooth on Twitter) is Grist’s senior writer and the author of two books. Originally published at Grist

If California is to meet its goal of running on 100-percent clean electricity by 2045, fields that once grew hay are going to have to start producing electrons. That’s according to a new report from The Nature Conservancy that estimates the state will need to cover an area at least twice as large as Yosemite National Park with solar panels and wind turbines.

That may seem like an ambitious ask, but the amount of California land devoted to renewable energy is already slated to grow exponentially. Part of the driving force is water scarcity: A state law now requires water regulators to figure out how to balance their accounts so that groundwater levels stop dropping. (For the past 50 years California has been pumping far more water out of the ground than filters back into aquifers.) To comply, farmers would have to stop irrigating at least half a million acres, according to a study by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

Letting valuable land go unirrigated isn’t exactly appealing to many growers. But the Nature Conservancy report suggests a good chunk of that acreage could be used for solar and wind farms. The report states that between one-third and one-half of the space needed by the state for renewables could come from agricultural acres starved for water.

California farmers have already begun embracing solar panels. For some grow operations, installing a small number of solar panels has been a way to save on energy bills. A few years ago the Bowles Farming Company, near Los Banos, California, put up solar panels on four acres to partially offset the electricity needed for a new drip-irrigation system. “When we converted to drip we started to see increased costs because we’d gone from gravity-driven irrigation to pump-powered irrigation,” said Derek Azevedo, the executive vice president of Bowles. Azevedo said the investment is paying off, and the company is planning on erecting more panels.

Other farmers are converting much bigger sections of their land to solar farms. The Los Angeles Times recently listed a few of the major projects underway: There are plans to build the largest solar farm on earth on agricultural land, in California’s Central Valley. Maricopa Orchards, at the southern end of the Central Valley, is putting up 4,000 acres of solar panels, and setting aside 2,000 acres of habitat for kit foxes and burrowing owls, as environmental mitigation.

But for all the energy sense it makes to plant solar panels in sun-soaked agricultural areas, the Nature Conservancy notes that there may be pushback when it comes to the impact on native flora and fauna. Unless new solar operations are placed carefully, those miles of panels could destroy important habitat for wildlife, and cover some of the most bountiful farmland in the world.

Another potential roadblock: while planting solar panels where almond trees once bloomed could help defuse California’s looming water crisis, so far, most installations have gone up on cattle pasture and other types of land that offers low profits per acre, said Ellen Hanak, who directs the Water Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“A lot of it is going on non-irrigated rangeland,” she said. But if farmers will also have to stop growing on irrigated land to avoid overdrawing aquifers. Solar panels would make sense on about 9 percent of this idled land, according to the Public Policy Institute of California’s estimates.

But that’s not stopping several California ag bigwigs from jumping on the solar bandwagon. Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who control more farmland than anyone else in America, are building solar panels on the massive pomegranate, citrus, and nut plantations of their Wonderful Company, north of Bakersfield. The company should be able to make as much money selling solar power as it does selling almonds and pistachios within the next few decades, Steven Swartz, the company’s vice president of strategy, told the Times.

And a 20,000-acre solar farm — the largest in the world — is planned on the west side of the Central Valley, on land tainted with crop-choking salts, according to the Times.

And what about the rest of the acreage needed to meet California’s clean energy goals? The Nature Conservancy’s analysis suggests that, if it builds major transmission lines to other states, California could meet its energy needs without spilling into important wildlife habitat.

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  1. Tinky

    As we reach the stage at which huge solar farms are being planned and built, can anyone enlighten readers about the risks of such large-scale applications of the technology?

    1. TimmyB

      It would be wiser to place solar panels on top of existing structures that farmland for a number of reasons. For starters, generating electricity closer to where it will be used decreases power losses due to resistance in transmission lines and thus be more efficient. Second, it would decentralize power generation so that average Californians wouldn’t be held hostage to corporations such as The Wonderful Company.

      1. jrs

        third it double uses already used land surface, so super efficient use of land surface. But I don’t have a problem with solar farms either.

    2. Brooklin Bridge

      An excellent question and now is certainly the time we should be asking it. TimmyB raises another excellent point about concentration of resources and if you throw a few queries out on the web, you’ll get back plenty of information that raises concerns. Large scale solar arrays are very efficient compared to rooftop installations even taking the transmission costs into account, but privately owned by finance/investment firms (a new part of the FIRE equation?). As such, they potentially represent vast concentrations of a different kind of power – the one that corrupts.

      As with Florida, I think we will see more and more regulations that limit home owner installations and less and less regulations limiting large privately owned corporate ones (all for your safety – of course). Thank goodness the rich will still have thier own installations.

      There are also physical environmental constraints which differ depending on location (Ohio isn’t quite the same as New Mexico for instance) but it looks like most of these could be dealt with or at least mitigated. Again, depending on who owns and controls these installations, those issues may or may not be adequately addressed, or dealt with at all, because profits. As a given country goes (somewhat to the degree of it’s involvement/capture with/by global finance) so will its implementations of renewable energy particularly as it relates to the risks of large scale applications you raise. At present, it’s a pretty depressing thought, but that could change.

    3. Old Jake

      The bigger question is the overall carbon budget. I have seen it alleged that the energy cost of the entire supply chain for solar exceeds that of the equivalent energy produced from fossil fuels. Energy storage has to be factored into this too. This may, of course, be heavily impacted by the service lifetime of the panels.

      The pessimist in me also notes that if Ian Welsh is correct, we won’t survive the full service life of such panels anyway.

    4. Math is Your Friend

      “As we reach the stage at which huge solar farms are being planned and built, can anyone enlighten readers about the risks of such large-scale applications of the technology?”

      1. A lot of the PV panels will leak various nasty contaminants as they decompose. Dangerous materials in some panels include lead, indium, and cadmium. It is interesting to note that cadmium is banned in the EU as a hazardous substance, but one is allowed to use it in PV panels. I’m not convinced that’s the right choice.

      2, The large PV farms are almost certainly a better idea than scattering them around all over the place. By having them in one place, they can be maintained properly, health risks are almost certainly lower – the higher you mount them the larger the number of people hurt or killed in falls, and a lot of people Furthermore, having a lot of sources for power complicates the grid. It is much easier to manage a distribution system with a few centrally controlled sources.

      3. As you put more uncontrollable (as in, you can’t decide to make power when you need it) energy into a grid, the less efficient the grid as a whole becomes. Clearly the solar plants will be non-functional during darkness, so you need adequate other sources to make up any shortfall. This generally involves running either hydro-electric or fossil fuel plants to keep supply and demand balanced, often at inefficient load values. Because this capacity is used for replacing variable sources, it necessarily remains an underutilized resource, as presumably you will tend to shut it down when you are getting power from other sources. The loss of grid efficiency and stability was something the Germans ran into, and was one of the reasons they pulled back on encouraging more wind and solar power.

  2. JohnM

    Wow! Four acres of solar panels only partially offsets electrical consumption for an irrigation system?! Who knew that growing produce in the desert was *that* energy intensive.

    Here in central NY I can count at least a half dozen multi-acre ‘solar farms’ within 15 miles of my home and get weekly solicitations in the mail to have one become my energy supplier for a $50 gift card and guaranteed savings. All this in one of the cloudiest, least solar efficient areas of the country. Almost too good to be true…

    Here is a 4 year old look at some of the hidden costs/inefficiencies of these installations: http://energyskeptic.com/2015/tilting-at-windmills-spains-solar-pv/

  3. bobcat

    Please don’t call them farms. They’re not in any sense of the word. They’re industrial scale electric power generation facilities. Here in my neck of the woods they’re taking 50-100 plus acre blocks of forest, cutting down all the trees, shipping every scrap of wood off to biomass plants where it’s burned. The tree stumps are grubbed out. The topsoil is bulldozed into piles and shipped off. The land is smoothed out. Then they install the solar panels. An environmentally destructive resource extractive industry, pure and simple. They should never be called farms. To do so just helps sugar coat the reality of what’s taking place.

    1. Ook

      So forest is replaced with solar panels that have significantly different reflectivity resulting in a changed radiant energy profile. How many acres of this before we see climate change locally, and on a larger scale, due to solar energy usage?

  4. jcf76

    I remember reading that solar power required a considerable amount of water for cooling which limited the ability to build solar farms at scale in deserts where they would otherwise be most useful.

    Admittedly, it was a quite a few years ago that I read that, so is it safe to assume that that problem has been solved?

    1. ObjectiveFunction

      Concentrating solar (CSP), which is basically boiling fluids (water or light oils) to turn a turbine might require cooling. But the (not inconsiderable) water budget of PV is for keeping the panels clean of environmental dust and other contaminants (e.g. bird poop) that get between sun and the panels, significantly degrading output.

  5. Eureka Springs

    So the billionaire’s who own Wonderful company may no longer be funding efforts towards war with Iran if there is no competition in the pistachio industry?

    This post doesn’t mention the food supply/amounts lost.

    The map is a bit confusing. Are they talking about ground water/aquifers depletion or all available water? I know here in AR, particularly the delta agricultural area massive rice farms and other irrigation are draining aquifers at frightening rates but there is so much water in this State, including both AR and MS rivers, it’s difficult to believe it deserves this color.

    I’ll ponder this and more as I soak in the clear waters of Beaver lake today with over 600 miles of shoreline.

  6. Wukchumni

    China just announced they weren’t buying our Ag products, won’t that put a dent in almond cookie crumbles?

    I can remember this 1986 tv commercial from the almond industry pleading with us to please eat a 5 oz can a week, as they were outgrowing demand by planting so many trees, which of course is nothing compared to the 125 to 250 million almond trees now in the ground.


    Much land in the Central Valley is being drained underfoot by going nuts…

    It’s a funny pairing, the tortoise being the pistachio tree, which takes about 10 years to come a cropper and can live to be 300, versus the rabbit with almond eyes, which can bear nuts in 4 years, but only has a 25 year lifespan.

    To be fair, the flat land on which they lay is for the most part useless if not irrigated, and would be perfect for huge solar farms once the aquifers are drained, and orchards become reliant on the whim of winter’s bounty.

    The tableau is always changing here, the crop of choice in the late 19th century being wheat.

    On our Hwy 395 drive on the right flank of the eastern Sierra last week, solar farms seem to be emerging like so many low lying shiny toadstools. A few more since our last jaunt in April.

    When the conditions are right with clouds-sunset, etc., from a distance they look like shimmering square lakes.

  7. Phacops

    Oh boy! Where are the sacrifice areas going to be for all that quartz, coal, oil and gas and metals used to mine, convert to silicon metal (2x to 3x the tonnage of coal needed to reduce quartz to silicon), refine, and fabricate those solar panels that have limited lifespans for an 8% efficiency in energy conversion?

    One only needs to see what NREL omits in calculating energy return on solar cells to spot just how much of the propaganda about clean renewable energy is drivel. Not included in estimates of energy return is energy used for; equipment and fuel to mine the coal, quartz, fluorite, sulfur, bauxite, copper and other raw materials, the energy costs to refine those raw materials or produce stock such as HF, energy used in fabricating mining equipment, forges, foundries, refineries and generating stations. And this is just the tip of inputs. Alsema, who ran the pie-in-the-sky calculations must think that raw materials for solar cell production are miraculously birthed on the loading docks of fabrication facilities. Plus, the IEEE estimates for industrial panels in a 230 – 550 megawatt facility, 1.5 billion liters of water is used during installation and thereafter 26 million liters annually.

    Thin film panels are little better and use some very toxic materials but still only removes the step of purifying the silicon metal, all for lower efficiencies.

    Plus, do you really want to live among mining that creates harmful dust and waste, or facilities generating silicon tetrachloride or hydrofluoric acid in their waste streams? Of course, to the coastal elites, those living among our national sacrifice ares are mere proles.

    My takeaway is that clean energy propaganda is meant to distract us from the existential requirement to reduce the human population.

    1. Old Jake

      Looks like you posted earlier than I did about the under-reported components of the solar energy story, with a slightly different angle but a similar cant. Though this should be put into perspective by comparing it with the current fossil fuel supply chain.

      I expect in the end we will get the negatives of both, and the positives will be harvested by that apocryphal but real “coastal elite.” Until, that is, the inevitable population winnowing that is coming one way or another.

  8. Louis Fyne

    The bottleneck is overnight power use and it’s being hand-waved away—overcoming that, via batteries, lots and lots of wind, or fission (which triggers 1/2+ of environmentalists) is the Apollo Project, that should’ve started on Obama’s first day in office in 2009.

    Even at 4am Pacific Time, California is using 24+ GW! of juice. (CA’s power peak tends to be between 4p and 7p and even at 8pm, CA is using 37+ GW of juice)

    You can’t cover that with solar + batteries in the near-term. Possibly with wind turbine….but that would require lots of turbines in environmentally sensitive coastal areas (Channel Islands, No. Cal coast, etc) + lots of new miles of transmission wire. consistent, reliable, industrial-scale wind isn’t everywhere.

    To be cranky, cuz I haven’t had my coffee… on one hand people are clamoring about the present danger of CO2, but then are patting their own backs w/greenwashing articles like this.

    CA isn’t doing enough today to hit CA’s own 2045 target—as building all the new turbines/wires will result in years of litigation/environmental review. If California can’t even build a train between downtown San Fran, and Union Station LA, I got no hope w/them. sorry to be a pessimist.

    Just saying

  9. JE

    The punchline is we’re hosed. No matter how low we as Americans and as a species as a whole worldwide get our “carbon footprint” there exists a population that will make that footprint non-sustainable. We need a dramatic change in our values and way of life in America (and the rest of the “Western” world) and need to start exporting that way of life to other nations instead of those other nations aspiring to the current consumerist Western lifestyle that is so energy intensive. Part of that new way of life will have to include unprecedented control of procreation. Sure, stop eating meat, get rid of your cars, build a zero-house, but the biggest thing you can do is don’t procreate, especially if you and your kids are in that “Western” lifestyle cohort.

    What to do about it? I really don’t know. Ideas? My fear is that humanity will go the route it has in the past and we’ll have war. And not the nice little warm-up proxy wars we’re having right now.

    1. Wukchumni

      I’m watching the bounty underneath the Central Valley being systematically drained in a manner not unlike getting oil, get it all rules do apply.

      Much of the CV will be a barren wasteland as climate change really kicks in, not unlike it was when the Yokuts tribes mostly avoided it, choosing to live in the Sierra foothills by reliable rivers, instead. The Native Americans here had one of the highest regional population density among the tribes in the USA

    2. Louis Fyne

      Green pundits like to be all smug about how Progressives are the “party of science/data” and all that. And that’s all it is—smugness.

      You can’t get to 100% renewable from here at the rate we’re going (without help from fission or a global moonshot project). The math is there for everyone to see.

      But pundits/politicans prefer greenwashing, smugness,Teslas and pithy tweets.

      1. Elspeth

        Unless of course we stop using the stuff – electricity that is. And that issue is going to be decided for us. 2C° is here in 2035.

    3. Phacops

      We have known since 1972, from Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome, that we have only a finite time to depopulate and reduce resource churn. The University of Melbourn has more recently seen that the forecasts from The Limits to Growth are accurate (2014).

      Hate to say it, but no amount of batteries, no amount of “green” energy, no amount of electric cars will save us from a collapsing human population because those solutions only represent the shift of intensive energy use to the mobilization of different resources.

      To see how green energy is big business, as you say, “follow the money.” McKibbon of 350 won’t say he knows the banksters who fund that organization. The Sierra Club and Earth Day all have funding by investment banks as does Al Gore’s green campaigns. It is zillionaires all the way down who expect a ROI.

      We need solutions to our population overrun to even approach sustainability or nature will impose its own ways to collapse the population.

      1. wilroncanada

        Don’t suppose the worldwide MIL complex hasn’t gamed that? Let almost all the southern hemisphere, except Australia and New Zealand, and a few million plutocrats elsewhere, die a miserable death of heat, disease and starvation over the next 50 years. Add to them the “useless eaters” in the northern hemisphere, those who are already succeeding in migrating from the disastrous southern borders of South and Central America and Africa. China itself can sacrifice about a billion. Then include the poor of Europe, the more northerly parts of Asia, and North America.
        Just keep them under control until they die off. The world may be somewhat hotter, at least for awhile, but there will be only a few hundred million remaining, who can take advantage of whatever mitigation has been prepared for them, while maintaining their current consumption.
        Of course, like Brave New World, a few diehards will survive the attempts to eliminate them completely. They will be the inhabitants who have the knowhow to sabotage the bourgeios drugged-up mess.

  10. Off The Street

    California cities and towns may need to join in the solar farming effort. There are some salaries to be raised, and some pensions to be collected.

    It is good to see the Sacramento Bee delving into some juicy topics. They certainly have enough local sources to ask.

  11. alan2102


    In 2010, Christian Dupraz and his colleagues at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research built the first agrovoltaic research farm near Montpellier. They planted two crops under full sun, while another crop went under a standard-density array of photovoltaics — the type of panels that generate the most electricity. The third crop grew under half-density arrays, which allowed more light through the solar panels. At the end of three growing seasons, crops grown under the full density panels had lost nearly 50 percent of their productivity. That wasn’t particularly surprising. What was remarkable was that the plants under half-density panels were just as prolific, if not more so, than the plants under full sun.

    Fraunhofer Reports Combining Farming With Solar 186% More Efficient In Summer Of 2018
    April 12th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
    For many people, solar power is seen as a threat to farming communities. That’s because they believe farmers must choose between raising crops or livestock and installing solar panels on their land. The Fraunhofer Institute has been conducting experiments in what it calls agrophotovoltaics for two years near Lake Constance, Germany. In the first year, it found the combination of solar and agriculture made the land 160% more productive than if it had been devoted exclusively to one or the other.

    1. Tyronius

      I’ve been thinking about this for years. Nice to see validation being done! Half density solar panels done properly leave more than half the land usable for crops- and those crops often grow better than they would under full sun anyway. Plus, the partial shade reduces water consumption. Win-win!

  12. boblecht

    Thank you Alan 2102, for introducing me to agrovoltaics. I see the potential for conversion of some current farms to hybrid solar/wind/agriculture production. Combining solar with wind generation on appropriate sites increases efficiency of investment in transmission infrastructure, while continuing to use the land for food production.

  13. e.f

    Here in New Mexico, all we have is sun, something like 300 days yearly. On the high desert with lots of sand. We could set up square miles of solar AND wind farms and export the energy if need be. Heck, we’re still feeling the results of the Armed Forces with their handling of uranium and development of nuclear “energy”.
    The REAL problem is water. And that points directly to the entire subject of fracking.The state of New Mexico holds between 9 and 13 million acres of land in its Land Grant Office. It leases some of that to… you got it… oil and mineral companies. I quote from their web site: “Ninety-five percent of the money raised by state trust land leases goes to fund New Mexico’s public education.” A paragraph later the states that “[w]e have one of the largest funds in the country, yet our children are falling behind. New Mexico was ranked last in child well-being, second to last in child hunger, and first in a survey of the worst places to raise a child.” (Sounds like I should raise a family here.)
    Back to fracking. Fracking needs water, lots of it. The southern half of New Mexico is deep in the oil stupor. You know JAWBS, lots of JAWBS. Those jobs cannot create the water needed for the gas and oil extraction.
    The New Mexico aquifers are running dry. If we had the solar energy to export, could that help?

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