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Harvesting Clean Energy

How California Can Deploy Large-Scale Renewable Energy Projects on Appropriate Farmland

To meet its renewable energy targets, California has a strong interest in siting utility-scale renewable energy projects on viable parcels that retain little or no agricultural or biological value. Projects on these sites may have fewer environmental impacts – meaning less mitigation, fewer permitting delays, and a shorter development horizon. But many renewable energy developers lack incentives or opportunity to propose projects first in these areas. State and local governments must therefore provide direction, mapping, and incentives to facilitate beneficial project site selection and avoid permit delays, litigation, and the potential for inefficient use of existing electricity infrastructure.

California’s ambitious renewable energy goals will require the deployment of large-scale renewable energy facilities. To meet the 2020 renewable energy target, Governor Jerry Brown has called for 8,000 megawatts of energy from such large-scale installations.

Using appropriate farmland may be necessary to find adequate space for large-scale renewable energy facilities. The state may need roughly 100,000 acres of land for large-scale development to meet the 2020 renewable energy goals, and up to 1 million acres for the 2050 greenhouse gas targets.

Permitting delays and lack of adequate transmission infrastructure have created obstacles for large-scale projects. California had not permitted any new solar thermal plants between 1990 and 2008 due to delays resulting from agency processes and opposition from local landowners, environmentalists, and other groups.

Policy Needs

Policy Solutions

Clarifying Definition of Suitable Farmland for Renewable Energy Development.

Develop and Utilize Criteria for Appropriate Agricultural Lands for Renewables Energy Development.

State Legislature

Define criteria for land that is appropriate for renewable energy development.

A number of factors could be used to develop criteria for appropriate agricultural land to convert to renewable energy development. These factors include access to water, drainage, and soil quality.

State Leaders

Develop legal mechanisms to ensure that state and local agencies and local governments utilize streamlined criteria for making land use and permitting decisions about renewable energy facilities on agricultural lands.

Improving and coordinating overlapping definitions between diverse statutes (e.g. Williamson Act and California Environmental Quality Act) and regulatory regimes can result in expedited and less costly permitting across multiple jurisdictions.

Complying with Williamson Act Contracts.

Utilize State-Determined Criteria for Determining Appropriate Agricultural Lands to Suspend Williamson Act Contracts.

State Leaders

Utilize criteria for determining appropriate agricultural land to suspend or terminate Williamson Act protections.

SB 618 (Wolk), signed into law in 2011, provides a list of criteria for allowing suspension of Williamson Act contracts. State leaders and stakeholders should use lists such as that contained in SB 618 or the state-directed list discussed above to prioritize the renewable energy projects on agricultural lands that would be most suitable for renewable energy development.

State Leaders

Enact a separate process for suspending or terminating Williamson Act contracts on agricultural lands that meet criteria for transitioning from agriculture to renewable energy production.

Current processes for terminating Williamson Act contracts for solar development are either too lengthy under the non-renewal option or legally difficult under the cancellation provisions. The state should create a separate track for suspending or terminating Williamson Act contracts on severely impaired land for renewable energy development.

State Leaders

Develop a funding mechanism to support the California Department of Conservation’s efforts to develop maps or criteria to indicate priority areas for renewable energy development on agricultural land.

Because the Department of Conservation receives funds in part from Williamson Act cancellations, the decline in revenue from these cancellations means that the agency may not be able to continue this mapping process or execute it comprehensively. The legislature should devise a funding mechanism in the compromise to ensure that the Department of Conservation can continue this mapping work and criteria development.

State Leaders

Develop a fund to mitigate impacts on agricultural land from renewable energy development.

Renewable energy developers, as part of the permit fees for a project on agricultural land that retains some productive capability, could fund an agricultural mitigation bank that would provide long-term protection for agricultural land. These mitigation measures could take the form of conservation easements, direct land purchases, and programs to protect water resources for agricultural land near the project sites.

Navigating Endangered Species Act Provisions.

Expedite Review and Improve Agency Staffing.

Federal and State Leaders

Develop criteria for sites with minimal biological value that can transition to renewable energy production.

Policy makers could use the criteria as a basis for steering projects toward the qualifying lands and away from more sensitive habitat. As an incentive to lure developers to these sites, federal and state leaders could employ various streamlining methods for permitting.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Use streamlined “low-effect habitat conservation plans” or develop comprehensive regional plans for renewable energy projects on appropriate land.

“Low-Effect Habitat Conservation Plans” are streamlined plans specifically targeted to projects that have minor or negligible effects on listed, proposed, or candidate species and their habitats and on other environmental values or resources. In order for a private party or a state or local agency to receive a permit to build on private lands in an area that may harm listed species, an applicant must submit a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP).

United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Apply expedited endangered species review used for federal public land projects to appropriate private land proposals.

Federal leaders should consider ways to provide a functional equivalent to allow the USFWS to utilize the expedited timelines found in Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act for the Section 10 process. In doing so, they should note that Section 7 procedures provide less opportunity for public input than the Section 10 process.

United States Department of Interior and United States Fish and Wildlife Service

Apply existing streamlining rules for appropriate solar projects.

Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act allows the USFWS to establish special regulations for threatened but not endangered species. In the case of appropriate solar development, the USFWS could use 4(d) rules to expedite permitting and ensure standard mitigation and protection for threatened species and their habitat. This provision of the Act could provide some immediate permit streamlining for suitable projects.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game

Coordinate agency processes and personnel to expedite permitting and analysis for low-impact projects.

To help expedite the analysis of impacts on listed species under both federal and state law, policy makers should consider co-locating state and federal scientists in the same buildings or cities to help  filers and co-detailing them to permit teams to allow the agencies to share information more easily.

United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game

Include funding mechanisms with permit applications to hire additional staff to expedite review.

Federal legislation to increase permit fees to bring in more revenue would pay for more staff at the relevant agencies and presumably speed the permit processing time. Developers may be amenable to paying higher permit fees if it leads to quicker processing and therefore saved costs from minimizing delay.

Coordinating Land Use Planning and Analysis.

Plan for and Encourage Appropriate Renewable Energy Development.

Federal and State Leaders

Develop permit streamlining incentives for agricultural parcels that are appropriate for development.

Once the state and stakeholders determine that certain agricultural areas would be particularly suitable for renewable energy production, the legislature and key agencies should develop permit streamlining conditions that would promote these sites for renewable energy development. State leaders can also work with the United States Congress to authorize coordinated and streamlined environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to mirror state efforts.

Federal and State Leaders

Coordinate agency permitting for renewable energy development on agricultural parcels.

State agencies should coordinate environmental review of projects among multiple agencies both at the state level and when state and federal agencies have joint jurisdiction over a project. “Memoranda of Understanding,” “Memoranda of Agreement,” or “Interagency Agreements” between agencies have worked in other contexts to delineate responsibilities among various agencies.

Local Governments

Plan for large-scale renewable energy development with state guidance.

County general plans represent the vision for overall development in unincorporated county jurisdictions, where most agricultural parcels are located. The state could assist by requiring renewable energy planning to be an element of general plans and by issuing guidelines about how to undertake this analysis to ensure development in appropriate parcels.

State Government

Consider ending or phasing out tax exemptions for solar development on agricultural land.

The current property tax exemptions for solar energy projects, while advantageous to renewable energy developers, deprive local governments of opportunities to assess solar facilities as new construction to raise property taxes once the solar facilities are operational. As an alternative or complement, the state should coordinate cost-sharing information among local governments to help them evaluate the likely budget impact of servicing a large-scale renewable energy development.

Improving Electricity Infrastructure.

Upgrade California’s Electricity Infrastructure to Service Appropriate Areas for Renewable Energy Development.

Utilities and Transmission Planning Entities

Plan transmission and substation upgrades where renewable energy facilities are likely to be built.

Public utilities and investor-owned utilities should focus their efforts to build transmission lines to service priority agricultural areas for renewable energy generation that meet the criteria for marginally productive or physically impaired. They should consider supporting appropriate agricultural areas as high-value Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZ), which leaders in a statewide planning effort are identifying and prioritizing for transmission siting.


Prioritize procurement of renewable energy from appropriate agricultural areas.

Utilities should consider accepting a slightly higher cost on power purchase agreements (PPAs) from appropriate agricultural areas in return for recognizing that the siting, permitting, and mitigation costs may likely be less in these areas and that these projects possess greater certainty of meeting delivery deadlines. A proliferation of PPAs in these areas would provide futher incentive for identifying these lands as high priority for transmission investments.

“The problem has been a vacuum at the state level. The state should identify the “go” lands and the “no-go” lands. Otherwise, the state is relying on lawsuits by citizens groups to determine renewable energy policy.”

Bill Powers, Powers Engineering