Can Solar Development Coexist With Ag?

Answering the call for more renewable energy production under the California Renewable Portfolio Standards, Imperial County has quickly become the place to be for projects generating energy, especially from geothermal and solar sources.
For being one of the poorest counties in the state, we are blessed to have a wealth of natural resources. We have water from the Colorado River to feed our crops, sun nearly 360 days each year allowing farmers to grow year-round, and geothermal resources unlike any other area.
Currently, there are approximately 65,000 acres of proposed renewable energy projects being planned in Imperial County. Of that, some 22,000 acres are being considered for solar energy projects.
However, before we all get excited over this potential boom to our economy, we must first consider the impact it could have on our already thriving agricultural industry, which has been the primary contributor to our economy for the past 100 years.
One of the most important questions to ask: does the project plan to take any agricultural land out of production? Developers will argue the land they are using is marginal farm ground at best; however, what is one man’s trash is another’s treasure. For instance, although it may not be productive for vegetable crops, citrus orchards can be grown on land not normally suitable for other commodities. Keep in mind, fruit crops contributed $48 million to our economy in 2009 and for every 10 acres of citrus, one job is created.
We must also look into the future. What technology might be on the horizon that will help our farmers make such poor soil into rich farmland? Case in point, I would have never imagined a crop of hybrid lettuce could be grown on marginal farmland along Highway 86 in Imperial as was done just a few years ago.
Aside from taking farmland out of production, there are several impacts renewable energy projects could have on nearby farmers.
Water is our most valuable natural resource in Imperial Valley. Threats from outsiders seeking water historically used to grow food and fiber for the nation are of greatest concern to the agricultural community. Before considering any new projects, water supply sources must be identified and should not come at the expense of agriculture.
Land underneath solar panels has the potential to harbor animal habitat and pests which could cause damage to adjacent fields and crops. If a cover crop is used for dust control, how will this impact nearby produce growers complying with Leafy Greens Agreements to ensure product safety?
And let’s not forget our farm service providers. Although aerial application may not be restricted due to a solar project, glare from the panels could create visual hazards during day and evening applications.
An Economic Impact Analysis should be completed to determine the direct and indirect negative economic change resulting from lost crop value, employment, income, sales and tax revenue versus the economic benefit of any renewable energy project.
Imperial County is a Right to Farm County meaning businesses and homeowners seeking to operate or live adjacent to or near agricultural operations should be prepared to accept conditions including, but certainly not limited to noise, odors, fumes, dust, chemicals, smoke, the operation of machinery of any kind during any twenty-four hour period and the application of chemical fertilizers, soil amendments and pesticides as the natural result of doing business in or near rural areas.
Developers considering Imperial Valley for new projects should respect that they will be conducting business in a farming community.
Can the renewable energy movement succeed in Imperial County? Yes, I believe it will; however, it should not be at the detriment of our agricultural industry.