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Managing the Coming Clash Between Solar Development and Environmental Protection

Written by Robert Selna, Selna Partners, LLP

Solar panels continue to drop in price, generate power more efficiently, and attract private developers who consider solar a good investment and pro-environment. As a result, it appears likely that the State of California will reach its goal of generating sixty percent of its electricity with renewable energy sources by 2030. 

It is also clear that large solar projects that generate the most power at the lowest price, require large amounts of flat, undeveloped property proximate to power substations. In California, the property meeting this criteria tends to be agricultural.  This reality sets the stage for conflicts between groups that share similar goals: on one hand are renewable energy proponents hoping to reduce the state’s reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting energy sources; the other is environmentalists and open space advocates, including those concerned about the state’s declining acreage of farmland and the native wildlife habitats and species that live and around it. 

The Nature Conservancy estimates that California will need between 1.6 and 3.1 million acres of solar and wind facilities by 2050 to decarbonize the electricity system and support a complete transition to green energy. The Nature Conservancy has noted that “with so much development on the horizon, it’s imperative that energy planners incorporate impacts to nature when making decisions about a clean energy future.”

Some of California’s local jurisdictions that feature large swaths of agricultural land and open space have started to address the inevitable clash between renewable energy development and nature conservation. They have identified areas for solar development where there is “least conflict” with productive farmland and imperiled plants, animals and natural habitats. For example, Santa Clara and Contra Costa Counites have conducted studies and UC Berkeley completed a similar analysis focused on the San Joaquin Valley. 

The counties that are not working to address the coming conflicts associated with the expected boost in solar development are doing so at their own peril and, instead, may see such disputes resolved by the courts, potentially at a high cost to taxpayers. 

There are a few common sense actions that county governments can take to help avoid clashes, but local government agencies and elected officials must give the actions priority to get them done in a timely fashion, as the demand for solar land rapidly expands. Examples include 1) completing solar mapping studies to understand least conflict areas; 2) executing general plan and zoning code amendments and related environmental reviews to provide solar developers and the public with more certainty about where large solar installations may be sited; and 3) educating agencies and the public about renewable energy, the state’s goals and the best approaches to achieving such aspirations. 

I have seen firsthand how the failure to prepare for the inevitable tension between solar development and land preservation can lead to bad results. My law firm currently represents an association of 250 property owners, cattle ranchers, environmentalist and proponents of good government called Save North Livermore Valley (“SNLV”). 

For more than six months, SNLV has been at odds Alameda County over the County’s decision to process solar development permit in eastern Alameda County. The developer proposes to place approximately 460 acres of ground-mounted solar panel facilities and storage batteries in North Livermore Valley, situated between the City of Livermore and the Altamont Pass. 

Alameda County features hundreds of thousands of agriculture acres on its east side and provides an example of a jurisdiction that has publicly committed to the laudable goal of providing more renewable energy for residents and contributing to the state’s renewable energy goals. Unfortunately, the County essentially ignored the coming battles that pit solar developers against farmers and environmentalists. The county is a cautionary tale for counties that fail to address the tension that occurs when solar companies set their sites on developing ag land and open spaces. 

One County’s Commitment to Renewable Energy 

The tension could have been avoided. A decade ago, Alameda County started down a path to provide clear guidance to solar developers and conservationists, but never completed the work. Now, the 460-acre project, called, Aramis, is causing the very tension the County sought to once avoid. That’s because the project is proposed for North Livermore Valley, which has long been the site of ranchland and is subject to a voter initiative intended to protect agricultural land, wildlife habitats, watersheds, “and the beautiful open space of Alameda County from excessive, badly located and harmful development.” 

The County’s support for solar originated in 2009. That’s when Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty spearheaded the start of East Bay Community Energy (“EBCE”), a non-profit that contracts with clean energy projects to provide more renewable power for residents of the East Bay. Haggerty represents East County, which includes Livermore and is, by far, the County’s most agricultural area. According to County staff reports, “EBCE has brought greater levels of renewable energy at competitive prices to residents of Alameda County….A major goal of the EBCE is to encourage and invest in renewable energy, including solar at the local level.” (citation?)

In East Alameda County between 2008-2012, developers proposed two utility-scale solar projects on land historically used for cattle grazing before the County completed studies on the best locations to site large solar facilities in east county. In 2012, the Supervisors instructed to the County’s planning staff to complete the studies and a general plan amendment before any new large-scale solar projects were approved in east county. Unfortunately, that direction appears to have been ignored. 

Common Sense Steps Can Avoid Conflict

A general plan is county’s most fundamental planning document. In Alameda County, a general plan amendment could have clarified locations where solar installations were allowed and provided a map to reflect the locations. For instance, a general plan might have permitted large solar installations in East County except for in areas identified as scenic routes, or where wineries concentrated vineyard land. 

Zoning divides counties into districts and applies different regulations in each district. Within the districts, zoning dictates the specific uses that are allowed and dictates the scale and scope of those uses. Zoning also includes the uses that are permitted as of right, or conditionally permitted – meaning permitted if they meet certain conditions. In Alameda County, a zoning amendment regarding large-scale solar installations might have limited the contiguous acreage of solar facilities so that they did not occupy a disproportionate amount of land. An amendment also could have dictated that solar projects compensate for any land they occupy by preserving an equal amount of rangeland elsewhere. 

Under the California Environmental Quality Act, general plan and zoning amendments require an environmental impact report (“EIR”). An EIR is intended to help understand the ecological implications of the proposed amendments.  As an example, if a proposed zoning amendment allowed utility-scale solar in an area known for migrating species, the EIR would alert the county and the county might modify the locations to avoid the conflict. 

Mapping studies indicating solar installation locations least likely to impacts the environment have helped counties amend their general plans and zoning districts. In one example, UC Berkeley completed a mapping study throughout the San Joaquin Valley using four mapping components:  1)  Areas that allow for the movement of species; 2) Occupied or potential rare species and communities; 3) Conservation lands that already prevent or restrict development such as dedicated conservation lands and federally-designated critical habitat; and  4) Expertly-identified conservation priority areas.

Finally, given the State of California’s necessary efforts to transition to renewable energy and a corresponding interest from developers to install solar facilities on California ag land, governmental agencies’ decisions must be well-informed. It is not enough for a county agency to know that more solar is needed. A more nuanced understanding is required to evaluate circumstances in which renewable energy development goals conflict with other environmental priorities. 

The Transition to Renewable Energy 

Currently California is transitioning from fossil fuel power sources to renewables including solar, but the transition cannot happen overnight. To be a truly reliable source of energy, solar requires battery storage, otherwise the state’s power grid loses its renewable power at night. Battery storage technology needs more work to work effectively for the grid, but advances are being made. 

Since 2015, California’s solar generation has increased by 350% and accounts for fifty percent of all green energy sources in the state. In recent years, California has actually produced too much solar power during the day and has had to “curtail” the solar power by off-loading it to other states. 

State statistics show that more solar is on the way. According to the California Energy Commission, 9,460 solar facility projects have obtained permits but have not yet completed construction. Many of those are expected to come online in the next five years. As a result, the nascent clash between solar developers and those advocating to preserve agriculture land and open space is only expected to increase. 

County governments can better manage and possibly avoid some of these disputes with timely least-conflict studies and mapping, land use amendments and education. They should not delay!

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Ethics – Reclaiming lost calories: Tweaking photosynthesis boosts crop yields

Written by: Amanda Cavanagh
Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Originally published in The Conversation
3 January 2019

What if your ability to feed yourself was dependent on a process that made a mistake 20 percent of the time?

We face this situation every day. That’s because the plants that produce the food we eat evolved to solve a chemistry problem that arose billions of years ago. Plants evolved to use carbon dioxide to make our food and the oxygen we breathe – a process called photosynthesis. But they grew so well and produced so much oxygen that this gas began to dominate the atmosphere. To plants, carbon dioxide and oxygen look very similar, and sometimes, plants use an oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. When this happens, toxic compounds are created, which lowers crop yields and costs us 148 trillion calories per year in unrealized wheat and soybean yield – or enough calories to feed an additional 200 million people for a whole year.

Amanda Cavanagh tests modified tobacco plants in a specialized greenhouse to select ones with genetic designs that boost the yield of key food crops. Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project, CC BY-ND

Improving crop yields to grow more food on less land is not a new challenge. But as the global population grows and diets change, the issue is becoming more urgent. It seems likely that we will have to increase food production by between 25 and 70 percent by 2050 to have an adequate supply of food.

As a plant biochemist, I have been fascinated by photosynthesis for my whole career, because we owe our entire existence to this single process. My own interest in agricultural research was spurred by this challenge: Plants feed people, and we need to quickly develop solutions to feed more people.

Supercharging photosynthesis to grow more food

It can take decades for agricultural innovations such as improved seeds to reach growers’ fields, whether they are created via genetic approaches or traditional breeding. The high-yielding crop varieties that were bred during the first green revolution helped prevent food shortages in the 1960s by increasing the proportion of grain-to-plant biomass. It’s the grain that contains most of the plant’s consumable calories, so having more grain instead of straw means more food. But most crops are now so improved that they are close to their theoretical limit.

I work on an international project called Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), which takes another approach. We are boosting harvests by increasing the efficiency of photosynthesis – the solar-powered process that plants use to turn carbon dioxide and water into greater crop yields. In our most recent publication, we show one way to increase crop yield by up to 40 percent by rerouting a series of chemical reactions common to most of our staple food crops.

Photorespiration costs a lot of energy

In the process of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide and water are transformed into sugars and oxygen. Sunlight powers this chemical reaction. BlueRingMedia/Shutterstock.com

Two-thirds of the calories we consume across the globe come directly or indirectly from just four crops: rice, wheat, soybean and maize. Of these, the first three are hindered by a photosynthetic glitch. Typically the enzyme that captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, called Rubisco, converts carbon dioxide into sugar and energy. But in one out of every five chemical reactions, Rubisco makes a mistake. The enzyme grabs an oxygen molecule instead. Rather than producing sugars and energy, the chemical reaction yields glycolate and ammonia, which are toxic to plants. To deal with this problem, plants have evolved an energy-expensive process called photorespiration that recycles these toxic compounds. But toxin recycling requires so much energy that the plant produces less food.

Photorespiration uses so much energy that some plants, like maize, as well as photosynthetic bacteria and algae, have evolved mechanisms to prevent Rubisco’s exposure to oxygen. Other organisms, like bacteria, have evolved more efficient ways to remove these toxins.

These natural solutions have inspired many researchers to try to tweak photorespiration to improve crop yields. Some of the more efficient naturally occurring recycling pathways have been genetically engineered in other plants to improve growth and photosynthesis in greenhouse and laboratory conditions. Another strategy has been to modify natural photorespiration and speed up the recycling.

Chemical detour improves crop yield

The red car represents unmodified plants who use a circuitous and energy-expensive process called photorespiration that costs yield potential. The blue car represents plants engineered with an alternate route to shortcut photorespiration, enabling these plants to save fuel and reinvest their energy to boost productivity by as much as 40 percent. RIPE, CC BY-SA

These direct manipulations of photorespiration are crucial targets for future crop improvement. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel consumption boosts photosynthesis, allowing the plant to use more carbon. You might assume that that this will solve the oxygen-grabbing mistake. But, higher temperatures promote the formation of toxic compounds through photorespiration. Even if carbon dioxide levels more than double, we expect harvest yield losses of 18 percent because of the almost 4 degrees Celsius temperature increase that will accompany them. We cannot rely on increasing levels of carbon dioxide to grow all the food we will need by 2050.

I worked with Paul South, a research molecular biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service and professor Don Ort, who is a biologist specializing in crop science at the University of Illinois, to explore whether modifying the chemical reactions of photorespiration might boost crop yields. One element that makes recycling the toxin glycolate so inefficient is that it moves through three compartments inside the plant cell. That’s like taking an aluminum can into three separate recycling plants. We engineered three new shortcuts that could recycle the compound in one location. We also stopped the natural process from occurring.

Four unmodified plants (left) grow beside four plants (right) engineered with alternate routes to shortcut photorespiration. The modified plants are able to reinvest their energy and resources to boost productivity by 40 percent. Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project, CC BY-ND

Designed in silico; tested in soil

Agricultural research innovations can be rapidly tested in a model species. Tobacco is well-suited for this since it is easy to genetically engineer and grow in the field. The other advantage of tobacco is that it has a short life cycle, produces a lot of seed and develops a leafy canopy similar to other field crops so we can measure the impact of our genetic alterations in a short time span. We can then determine whether these modifications in tobacco can be translated into our desired food crops.

Over two years of field trials, scientists Donald Ort (right), Paul South (center) and Amanda Cavanagh (left) found tobacco plants engineered to modify photorespiration are more productive in real-world field conditions. Now they are translating this technology hoping to boost the yield of key food crops, including soybeans, rice, cowpeas and cassava. Claire Benjamin/RIPE Project, CC BY-ND

We engineered and tested 1,200 tobacco plants with unique sets of genes to find the genetic combination that recycled glycolate most efficiently. Then we starved these modified plants of carbon dioxide. This triggered the formation of the toxin glycolate. Then we identified which plants grew best – these have the combination of genes that recycled the toxin most efficiently. Over the next two years, we further tested these plants in real-world agricultural conditions. Plants with the best combination of genes flowered about a week earlier, grew taller and were about 40 percent larger than unmodified plants.

Having shown proof of concept in tobacco, we are beginning to test these designs in food crops: soybean, cowpea, rice, potato, tomato and eggplant. Soon, we will have a better idea of how much we can increase the yield of these crops with our modifications.

Once we demonstrate that our discovery can be translated into food crops, the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA will rigorously test these modified plants to make sure they are safe for human consumption and pose no risk to the environment. 

Such testing can cost as much as US$150 million and take more than 10 years.

Since the process of photorespiration is common across plant species, we are optimistic that our strategy will increase crop yields by close to 40 percent and help find a way to grow more food on less land to be able to feed a hungry global population by 2050.