Solar development a boon for landowners, a bust for tenant farmers

Farm Forum

Solar energy development is pushing some Imperial Valley farmers off the land.

Not long ago, John Kubler was growing forage and vegetable crops on more than 2,000 acres in the Calexico area. Most of those acres are now fenced off and covered with photo-voltaic solar panels.

“We’ve lost over 1,000 acres. We’ll lose another 650 acres in six months. That won’t leave me with enough to sustain any operations,” he said, his voice rising.

Danny Robinson is also losing ground to solar panels. He, too, was farming about 2,100 acres near the Mexican border just two years ago. But a solar developer now has much of that land under option.

“We’ll be down to 400 acres when all these projects are built,” Robinson said.

Kubler, Robinson and other farmers who rent large swathes of the land upon which they grow are the indirect victims of California’s greenhouse-gas legislation and clean-energy initiatives. Backed with government subsidies, renewable energy developers can offer landlords more money than farmers can afford to pay.

Jack Vessey, a Holtville farmer, says his landlord informed him recently that his lease on a lettuce field near Robinson’s will not be renewed next year. Though Vessey’s family has worked that land more than 50 years, it may soon join the land that Robinson is losing to Tenaska Solar Ventures’ Wistaria Solar Project.

Green energy rush

Much of California’s green energy boom is driven by California’s Renewables Portfolio Standard. It requires utilities to procure 33 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2020.

Imperial County’s vast tracts of land and year-round sunshine are too good for solar developers and utilities to pass up.

“About four years ago we started getting a flood of these applications in,” said Andy Horne, Imperial County deputy executive officer for natural resources development.

Imperial County now has 18,000 acres of farm land permitted for solar development. Half have been built.

Though local officials say they prefer to see solar development on so-called marginal land, Imperial County’s zoning ordinance allows solar projects on agricultural land. And, it’s beginning to impact higher-quality vegetable plots.

Farm fields are especially attractive to developers. They’re flat, graded and connected with roads. Development in the desert, where additional cultural and natural resources need to be taken into account, is more expensive.

“Getting permits on (Bureau of Land Management) land is not a simple idea,” Horne noted.

Some of the solar development in the south end was also driven by the Sunrise Powerlink. The high-voltage power line connects to the Imperial Valley Substation and carries solar energy from the Mt. Signal area to San Diego.

Installing new solar panels and plugging into the existing infrastructure is relatively simple.

Tenaska Solar Ventures has 2,800 acres under option for its Wistaria project. Output is anticipated at 250 megawatts, but the number of acres that get developed will depend on the size of the project, said Delette Olberg, vice president of government and public affairs.

8minutenergy’s proposed Iris site nearby will reportedly produce 360 megawatts on about 1,400 acres.

Premium prices

Solar developers pay significantly more per acre than farmers do.

“Once a project is complete, solar developers are paying as much as $750 per acre versus an average of $300 per acre for average (alfalfa) ground,” said Darren Smith, partner with Smith-Kandal Insurance and Real Estate.

Vegetable production requires higher-quality ground, and those fields command higher prices.

“The value of vegetable ground has increased so quickly that it’s difficult to give it an average,” Smith said. “Vegetable ground rents closer to $500.”

For a landowner looking to retire or pass the property down to his children, those prices are difficult to pass up. And not all farmers are opposed to solar development. Some of the land under option for the Wistaria project is owned by Imperial Valley farmers.

“Solar is a new type of development,” Holtville Farmer Ralph Strahm said. “If a farmer has a chance to sell his land and buy 10 acres of farm land somewhere else, that’s always been the golden handshake in the farm community.

“It’s the dream of landowners that they will get the golden handshake from developers and have the wherewithal to do what they couldn’t otherwise,” he added. “I feel bad for the farmers that are displaced, but it’s a property rights issue.”

Kubler says he’s trying to find land.

“We’ve tried very, very hard to find land,” he said. “Between the solar deal and the fallowing program it makes it very difficult to find ground.”

And it isn’t just the farmers who are hurt by solar development, Kubler added. Irrigators, harvesters and entomologists are also affected.

“Look at the panel fields and there’s nothing,” he said. “That’s a tremendous net loss of labor to the Valley.”

“The big loss to the county is the millions and millions dollars of produce that is no longer produced,” Kubler continued. “Millions of dollars go through the farmers’ hands and are spent locally. That is the engine that keeps the Valley going.”

But solar developers say that those panels bring much-needed jobs and tax revenues.

Economic development

Tenaska estimates the Wistaria project will yield $450 million in tax benefits to Imperial County. It would create about 250 full-time construction jobs and 18 direct full-time operations jobs when completed.

Phyllis Cason, a special projects coordinator for the Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, surveyed farmers and solar developers about their labor demands.

On a 1,000-acre, 140-megawatt solar project, solar developers employ the equivalent of 800 full-time workers, she said. But, once the project is built, just six to eight full-time workers remain.

One thousand acres of field crops, like alfalfa and Sudan grass, require five to seven full-time employees, she said.

Row crops on 40 acres require a similar number of full-time employees and additional periodic labor.

“You also have 20 full-time people coming in to do the thinning job, at least 18 people doing the harvesting on 40 acres,” she said.

“And with ag you have a lot of indirect jobs,” she added.

However, the Wistaria and Iris projects will reportedly create more jobs than the agriculture that they displace, according to economic, employment and fiscal analyses commissioned by Imperial County.

Using data from Imperial County’s annual Agricultural Crop and Livestock Reports, Development Management Group compared job and wage creation of the historic “average agriculture use” of those fields with their developers’ “potential solar energy production use.”

The reports indicate the proposed Iris sites (277 acres of row crops and 1,145 acres of hay/grass-type crops) produce about 14 jobs currently. The solar farm will generate the equivalent of 876 full-time one-year construction jobs over the first two years and 24 full-time equivalent permanent jobs.

“When comparing both the direct and indirect permanent employment of agriculture versus utility (energy) production, the proposed use will generate a total of 93.2 permanent jobs while the current use creates 25.21 permanent jobs,” writes Michael Bracken, managing partner with Development Management Group, in the report.

The Wistaria Ranch Solar Project will generate 573 full-time construction jobs over two years and 18 full-time equivalent permanent jobs, according to Bracken. The site, which is currently used to grow crops, has 29 permanent jobs.

“When comparing both the direct and indirect permanent employment of agriculture versus utility (energy) production, the proposed use will generate a total of 69.9 permanent jobs while the current use creates 52.22 permanent jobs,” Bracken writes.

Bracken declined to discuss the reports because he wasn’t sure they had been reviewed by the Imperial County Board of Supervisors.

None of the farmers interviewed blamed their landlords for their predicaments. Robinson, in particular, stressed that his landlord is helping him find land somewhere else in the Imperial Valley.

Imperial County officials say they understand the farmers’ concerns.

“The impact to some of these farmers cannot be ignored or belittled,” Horne said. “There is no doubt that these projects have had an impact.”

The county is updating its General Plan to balance renewable energy development with the concerns of the agricultural community, Horne said. The goal is to limit solar development to marginal land.

Kubler laid the blame squarely on the Imperial County Board of Supervisors.

“Whatever you want to do has to go past the supervisors. They hold their position on their commitment to what is best for the Imperial Valley,” he said. “There ought to be a class-action lawsuit against the supervisors for what they’ve done to the Valley.”