Ag at Large: Solar sites can dodge farm land

(pixabay.com)

When they first began to cover plots of farmland with panels to collect the sun’s energy, some thought the encroachment of the paraphernalia on ag land might become critical and permanent. Emphasis on developing alternate locations is easing some minds.

Heavy and repeated spraying to control weeds, the absence of irrigation (even rainfall), and constant baking under the sun’s amplified rays tax the potential productivity of the scorched land beneath fields of solar panels – true.

So, guided by a research report from the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California, Davis, more thought is being given to locating solar sites away from prime agricultural land, especially in the Central Valley.

Solar sites don’t just dot the landscape in some prime food growing areas of California’s fertile production expanses. On the west side of Fresno County, for example, they dominate the landscape. On acre after acre, usually in relatively large plots of 20 acres or more, solar units silently serve their purpose of turning the sun’s rays into productive energy.

But the researchers’ report indicates that many alternate sites can be established in open areas that are not in agricultural production. Roofs, as many dairymen have already learned, can be ideal locations for solar units. But roofs away from the farm can serve the purpose just as well. 

The UC report points to the many lakes and reservoirs in California as potential sun-splashed locations where floating solar units can be established. Wordsmiths have labeled these as floatovoltaic locations.

Near some of the state’s arid agricultural land are salty and water resistant soils that can be utilized without encroaching on productive farmland. A few marshes can be included in what the UC report calls “land sparing” locations.

An introduction to the report refers to the potential encroachment of solar systems on ecosystems, and their conservation as well. That’s enough to send some ecologists searching for open spaces.

The report was produced by Madison K. Hoffacker, Michael Allen and Rebecca Gonzalez. All are affiliated with the University of California at the Berkeley, Davis or Riverside campuses in various professional and scholastic capacities.

Their report specifies that mitigating “energy sprawl” on agricultural land as more solar energy units are located can exploit four alternatives: the built environment, salt-affected land, contaminated land and water reservoirs. All are readily available in California.     

The document reminds us that a major redeeming feature of solar energy exploitation is the flexibility of locating units to receive the sun’s energy. They need not be in vast open spaces, just in areas where the sun’s rays are direct and uninterrupted.

In contrast, wind driven units occupy – and some believe, clutter – several breezy and very visible locations in California and elsewhere. They are constant moving reminders that nature’s energy sources can be tapped, but at a cost.

The University of California’s report about the location of solar units provides a timely reminder that agricultural land is a valuable natural asset. Preserving it needs to be at least as important as exploiting it.

With sensitive application, solar units can have much broader application and much wider versatility than units already well developed – wind, hydro and coal or gas-fired. Let’s enjoy the quiet and the strength of sunshine.

What a bonus we can receive if our rich farmland can be maintained for food and fiber production, and unused spaces elsewhere open to the sun’s rays utilized for the production of power. Can we agree that it adds up to a bright outlook?