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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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Innovation – Emerging Agribusiness Technologies

Originally Published in Oct-Dec 2019 Quarterly

Sheri McClure

Good business leaders are always trying to do the best for their stakeholders, their employees, and their customers; but they don’t always have the time to research new ways to make their businesses more efficient and sustainable. Luckily, talking to experts is what we do best. We want to share three emerging technologies that can help you streamline your agribusiness in remarkable and eco friendly new ways.

Basil and lettuce being grown hydroponically in a large greenhouse. Water usage is only 1% of regular farming!

Vertical Farming

Traditional farms require mass quantities of acreage and are subject to issues like unseasonable weather, fallow land, and pests. With increasingly unpredictable weather, a growing aversion to pesticides, and an ever increasing population to feed, agricultural areas are feeling additional pressure. Vertical farms have become one way farmers can address these issues.  

It may be helpful to think of vertical farming as the technologically-advanced urban cousin to traditional greenhouses. Of course, each company offers systems with different features, but the overall goal is to utilize vertical space in a safe, controlled environment that greatly lessens each farm’s carbon footprint. Vertical farms can also be housed in old warehouses or other unused buildings, which could help boost the economy of underutilized urban areas and bring fresh, local produce to these communities.

I spoke at length with Niko Kurumaa, the International Sales Manager for Netled (pronounced net led) about Vera, their closed vertical farming solution. Netled has its roots in tomato farming, but was developed as a daughter to their greenhouse business after 20 years in industry. Their primary crops are leafy greens, like basil and lettuce, and they are expanding into the cannabis industry. Netled were pioneers in LED grow lights back in 2007, and have continued to push the technology of indoor agriculture with Vera. 

In general, vertical farms cut the farm’s carbon footprint and transportation costs. They even allow farmers to utilize more layers of soil since most of the good soil has already been used. Vertical farms can also be housed in old buildings or even skyscrapers–urban spaces where traditional agriculture would not be possible on the same scale. 

So what exactly is Vera and what prompted Netled’s recent 11 million dollar contract with EU company Astwood Infrastructure? Niko began by explaining Vera’s automation benefits. “Vera uses 95% less water than traditional farming,” he said. This decrease is primarily attributed to the water circulation system. The plants are watered, but when they give up additional moisture through natural processes, the AC system captures it, condenses it, and reuses it. The Netled engineering team has proven that Vera circulates 98% of the water used, which makes this type of farming more sustainable and aids in doubling average crop production. Recycling water in these closed environments also keeps chemicals out of the soil, which is helpful because the chemicals can affect future crops and contaminate drinking water.

But I believe Netled’s success is about more than a great product. “We see ourselves as a technical partner, not just a technical supplier,” Niko explained. The company has their own testing facility in Finland, where they are based. (Although they are actively looking for partners in the US and an operator in Indiana.) Netled is constantly improving the product and will test their customer’s crop in their own facilities to make sure everything is working optimally. In addition, Vera comes with a 10 year maintenance agreement, and their software connects all of the Netled farms globally to their tech. In other words, whether you’re in Finland or California, their team can help ensure that your vertical farm is functional and efficient. 

Management Software & Services

Agribusiness consists of a lot of moving parts. It is important to have reliable methods for tracking things like production, shipping, sales, and compliance. There are companies like AgriCare, located in the Central Valley, that manage some or all of these aspects for businesses. But there is also a growing list of vertical software technology that you can manage with or without additional support to keep your business organized. 

One of these resources is Chasqui (pronounced cha-ski), a platform managed by Ciclo. I met Oscar Aguilera, Co-Founder and VP of growth at Ciclo, at the NCIA’s Cannabis Business Summit and Expo in July 2019. I was impressed by their services, and was even more excited to learn that their product can be customized for any type of agribusiness. 

Ciclo places a huge emphasis on meeting their customers’ needs. In the legal cannabis industry, there is an enormous need to remain compliant despite everchanging and dense guidelines. Their platform, Chasqui, helps to keep growers and distributors compliant. But the software can also be customized for more traditional crops and their agricultural needs. 

For customers who would like additional support, Ciclo is there to provide managed services for Chasqui customers. You can use the software straight out of the box, but Ciclo wants to ensure that your and your businesses needs are reflected in your software customization and support. They begin by speaking with new customers over the phone. Their representatives want to understand your business, including its challenges, workflow, and processes, so you can customize the software to work best for you. This preliminary call is followed by hands on and face-to-face site visits, so you can feel comfortable with the product and its uses. They even have representatives who are fluent in both English and Spanish, so everyone involved in your business can have their voice heard. 

Management software like Chasqui makes it easier to keep tabs on all aspects of your business from anywhere at any time. It is important to find the best product for your business needs, but finding one that marries customized software and face-to-face customer service sounds like a promising start.

Alternative Energy

Notice that this section is not called Solar Energy. Solar can be a great way to go, and there are great companies like Sunworks Solar Power in Roseville, Wildwood Pools and Solar in Fresno, and SPURR in Concord. But these days everyone knows at least something about solar energy. What you may not know is that you can take solar on or off the grid. The companies listed above can help customers learn to bank their own solar energy and use it when they need it most instead of selling it back to large energy corporations. And Dr. Micro Grid consultants can help you get off the grid entirely. But solar is not the only option.

We met the Executive Vice President and Senior Account Manager of Ice Energy at the Southern California Facilities Expo back in May, and we were fascinated by their innovative solution to the high cost of cooling commercial spaces. Instead of using a conventional HVAC unit, use ice. In many ways, their Ice Bear and Thermal Bear thermal storage AC units are the opposite of solar energy. When ambient temperatures and energy costs are lower, these units make ice. When temperatures and energy costs are higher, they use these huge chunks of ice to cool the coils that in turn cool your space. 

If you are currently envisioning a large block of ice in a big bucket a la Looney Toons, think again. These are slick, HVAC sized units that easily replace traditional units. Ice Energy claims their customers can save up to 40% on their overall energy costs, and up to 95% on their peak energy usage. They also have a pretty impressive list of big name customers in agriculture, retail, and industrial, including New Belgium Brewery, Staples, AT&T, Lithia Chevrolet, and Panda Express.

Each business is unique and requires different supporting services. We love speaking with experts about what they do, what they offer, and what they know. And we are always happy to pass along that information to our readers. Hopefully some of these new innovations piqued your professional interest and will help you learn new ways to run your business more efficiently and sustainably.