Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

A solar farm grows in California?

with 3 comments

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...

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Average annual rainfall in Merced, California, the Central Valley town where earlier this summer Michelle Obama delivered her only commencement address of the year, is about 12 inches, nearly all of it falling in the four months from November to March. That’s about a quarter of Washington, D.C.’s, and 20 percent less even than Los Angeles’s.

Yet this city of 80,000 is in the center of the nation’s richest agricultural area—the biggest producer in the US of dozens of crops from almonds to zucchini. Central Valley farmland is irrigated in the summer with water that, during winter months, falls as snow in mountains to the east, melting in the spring and draining down the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas into irrigation canals.

Right now the Valley is locked in a cyclical drought that is affecting millions of families and driving up food prices. The federal government in February announced that little-to-no water would be available to farmers from US sources; the unemployment rate in parts of the Valley reaches 35 percent.

Worse, this is just a precursor of things to come: As global warming leads to even lower Sierra snowfall, less water will be stored in the mountains for spring runoff; more water will come to earth as rain and will either soak into the ground in the mountains where it falls or wash through the Valley in the less-productive winter planting season.

So the area’s status as the nation’s breadbasket—and billions in revenue to the state—is severely threatened in the long term. Add to that the fact that most of the tillable land is heavily irrigated, which leads to saline deposits that build up over time and render the soil no longer arable, and you’ve got a major economic crisis coming down the pipes in California as soon as 25 years from now, with $11 billion-plus in annual revenue to the state literally evaporating.

But what does (and shall) the Central Valley have in abundance? Check out the satellite view of Merced: Sunshine.

Why not turn the doomed Valley into the world’s largest solar-energy farm?

Princeton University’s Robert Socolow has written of the need for about a dozen “wedges” needed to stave off the growth of greenhouse-gas emissions beyond a point of planetary crisis (if we aren’t there already); one of these is a solar farm the size of Connecticut somewhere in the American West, where it’s sunny most of the time, generating 2 million megawatts of energy. The Valley has 4.7 million acres of farmland; Connecticut is 3.5 million acres. So we’ve got 1.34 wedges right there.

This has already been proven feasible on a smaller scale: The California Valley Solar Ranch, located on former cattle-grazing land in the Valley, will generate 250 megawatts of energy (enough to power about 100,000 homes); Pacific Gas & Electric, one of the state’s biggest utilities, has contracted to purchase all the plant’s power as part of California’s renewable energy mandate, which calls for 20 percent of the state’s energy from clean sources by 2010.

The ranch sits on 1900 acres. Multiply that by 2000 and you’ve got 3.8 million acres and 200 million homes—enough to power the entire country on 81 percent of the available land in the Valley.

Because of the inefficiency of transmitting power over long distances (even via next-generation wires such as those that the stimulus package doled out $60 million for), it’s not feasible to deliver that power 2500 miles to the east coast. But in reality not all the farmland would be converted anyway.

The point is, the Great California Solar Farm would produce more than enough energy to power the entire state, plus every electric vehicle in the state even if every single car in California were traded in for an EV, with plenty of power left over to be sold outside the state.

This would be key to replacing the $11 billion in agricultural revenue the Valley now generates. At 10 cents per kilowatt hour (prices in California are usually between five and 12 cents), selling 500 gigawatt-hours of the remainder (a tiny fraction of the potential total) would generate…$10 billion a year.

With most photovoltaic panels now built overseas, producing the Valley’s new energy-absorbers in California could be a significant source of private-sector employment in the state, where unemployment is now the highest in the nation. And the water currently diverted for agriculture could be delivered to urban areas, which will be more thirsty in the future for essentially the same reasons that the Valley faces chronic drought.

Obstacles? Of course there are. The most obvious is initial cost. A 20 megawatt solar plant under construction in North Carolina will cost Duke Energy $100 million to build; a 120 megawatt plant underway in California will be $773 million (or $6.44 per watt). At current prices a solar energy farm this huge would swallow the entire federal budget.

But the price for materials will go down significantly with such a massive order. And since the entire planet will benefit, perhaps other countries could chip in. The opportunity costs of putting many of the Valley’s farmworkers there now on welfare, plus the social costs of drug and alcohol and spousal abuse that come with the high unemployment that is inevitable with business as usual, must also be factored in. And farmworkers could be retrained to install and maintain the system; it’s got to be more lucrative work than the backbreaking labor of picking lettuce and strawberries.

How will all the food now grown in the Valley be replaced in the market? Another legitimate question, but one that we’ll need answers to anyway under a business-as-usual scenario—and a lot of the land is used for grazing and fattening wasteful cattle, and for growing cotton as well as highly-subsidized crops such as rice which could be cheaply imported.

One thing the discussion of climate change over the past decade has made clear is that the cost of the kind of polluting the modern world runs on is huge, and hasn’t been paid for yet. Famine, war, extinction, disease—the list goes on, and the bill is in the mail. The Great California Solar Farm could be a significant down payment.

So: Feasible?

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3 Responses

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  1. What’s your take on the 150mw solar plant at Kramer Jct.? Surely the real estate is much less expensive in the Mojave. And there’s still plenty of it left for putting solar arrays on. Why would they move to the Central Valley? I guess transmission is a cost they have to factor in?


    July 7, 2009 at 11:15 am

  2. Hey, I’m all for solar arrays anywhere they can put ’em. The BLM just identified areas it manages (download the map her: that are good candidates for solar plants and plenty of them are in far-off places. My idea was triggered chiefly by the need to monetize the Central Valley since it’s such a huge economic engine whose pistons are going rusty (to advance the metaphor).

    Paul Tullis

    July 7, 2009 at 1:02 pm

  3. […] California’s largely agricultural Central Valley should start farming solar power instead, as I wrote a couple weeks back. The president and COO of an algae-biomass company sent me a message about the […]

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