What kind of issue is a field of solar panels on farmland?

“In the end,” says Davidson, who spent a month in Germany studying the Energiewende, “it isn’t about making money. It’s about quality of life.”
-- Thomas Hedges, Truthdig, Nov. 15, 2012
Delirious with the amount of cash the project offers to County government, Merced County planning staff and supervisors impeccably documented and unanimously approved the planting of 300,000 solar panels on a thousand acres of farmland, half of it mitigated at 2:1 ratio because it is irrigated. But the flaws in the project, perhaps to be sued by environmental groups, are evident even in the enthusastic reporting below.

First, there is the urgent issue of safe passage for the San Joaquin kit fox -- as endangered as the Delta smelt -- through a narrow bottleneck between its northern and southern ranges, now to be plugged by the solar project. The project leaves a narrow path bounded by machinery. The project is assuming animal behavior not proven and some disproven, like artificial kit fox burrows -- known for decades not to work.

Second, the mitigation makes the ridiculous division so popular with the Farm Bureau between "prime" farmland (irrigated) and rain irrigated pastureland. Although this valley is full of hydro-potentates, strutting their use rights like diamonds on their pinkies, backed up by the braying of the farm bureau, the only sustainable agriculture this valley has is cattle raised on seasonal pastureland and driven or trucked into the mountains in the summer. But the dim collective mind of the Valley will never ask what price it is paying for being the world's greatest supplier of almonds. Do we wish to continue to be known as the world's greatest destroyer of honey bees?

Third, not necessarily in this order, comes the issue of buying perpetual agricultural easements on nearly a thousand acres of prime farmland. This, the linchpin of mitigation for the project, is about as likely to happen as the University of California is to buy perpetual conservation easements on the thousands of acres of pastureland it has promised to mitigate in assorted state and federal environmental documents.

Also, the project's forensic biologists proclaim that no bird protected by the international Migratory Bird Act of 1918 will ever mistake a solar array for a lake.

There were also some problems with the conduct of the meeting, glazed over by the reporter. Despite its habit, the board cannot just caucus in secret whenever it wishes, for example, during public hearings. Nor can it bring up a regular agenda
item, which ought properly to have been part of the solar panel project without announcing time for public comment.

Evidently, the board believed, possibly because it was doing business however disguised with Angelo Tsakapoulos, who has been all the way to the US Supreme Court attacking federal environmental law (he lost), that they had license to play like they imagine "adult" land-use decision makers play and once again rode roughshod over environmental and public-process law and regulation. They may also have been encouraged by political pressure brought by Gov. Jerry Brown on the state Department of Fish & Game and by Friends of Angelo in Washington on the US Fish & Wildlife. Both agencies, although officially charged
with enforcing environmental law, sincerely believe that they actually work for politicians and their contributors. One of the most unfortunate things for the environment of the United States was when Presidebt Obama removed  Earle Devaney from the office of Inspector General of the Department of Interor not long after the latter had begun to straighten out the corruption of the agency under Bush. However, the environment's loss was a gain for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which Congress established to monitor the federeal stimulus of $841 billion. Devaney is set to retire next month.

What's not to like about solar power? Not much. It's pretty clean, relatively speaking. But, is it intelligent or socially responsible to put 300,000 solar panels on farm and ranch land to produce power to sell to Los Angeles? Or is it merely the stupid destruction of Big Business at work in a political plutocracy where regulation is confetti and sensible ideas like putting solar panels on the roofs at the former Castle Air Force Base are ignored? Will the US, like Germany at the end of WWII, have to be bombed to rubble and lose millions of its citizens before it finds a social and environmental consciousness?

Badlands Journal editorial board


How Germany Is Getting to 100 Percent Renewable Energy
by Thomas Hedges   

There is no debate on climate change in Germany. The temperature for the past 10 months has been three degrees above average and we’re again on course for the warmest year on record. There’s no dispute among Germans as to whether this change is man-made, or that we contribute to it and need to stop accelerating the process.Solar panels cover the rooftops of a German farming village. (InsideClimate News/Osha Gray Davidson)

Since 2000, Germany has converted 25 percent of its power grid to renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and biomass.

The architects of the clean energy movement Energiewende, which translates to “energy transformation,” estimate that from 80 percent to 100 percent of Germany’s electricity will come from renewable sources by 2050.

Germans are baffled that the United States has not taken the same path. Not only is the U.S. the wealthiest nation in the world, but it’s also credited with jump-starting Germany’s green movement 40 years ago.

“This is a very American idea,” Arne Jungjohann, a director at the Heinrich Boll Stiftung Foundation (HBSF), said at a press conference Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C. “We got this from Jimmy Carter.”

Germany adopted and continued Carter’s push for energy conservation while the U.S. abandoned further efforts. The death of an American Energiewende solidified when President Ronald Reagan ripped down the solar panels atop the White House that Carter had installed.

Since then, Germany has created strong incentives for the public to invest in renewable energy. It pays people to generate electricity from solar panels on their houses. The effort to turn more consumers into producers is accelerated through feed-in tariffs, which are 20-year contracts that ensure a fixed price the government will pay. Germany lowers the price every year, so there’s good reason to sign one as soon as possible, before compensation falls further.

The money the government uses to pay producers comes from a monthly surcharge on utility bills that everyone pays, similar to a rebate. Ratepayers pay an additional cost for the renewable energy fund and then get that money back from the government, at a profit, if they are producing their own energy.

In the end, ratepayers control the program, not the government. This adds consistency, Davidson says. If the government itself paid, it would be easy for a new finance minister to cut the program upon taking office. Funding is not at the whim of politicians as it is in the U.S.

“Everyone has skin in the game,” says writer Osha Gray Davidson. “The movement is decentralized and democratized, and that’s why it works. Anybody in Germany can be a utility.”

The press conference the foundation organized with InsideClimate News comes two weeks after one of the biggest storms in U.S. history and sits in the shadow of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which would unlock the world’s second-largest oil reserve in Canada. The event also comes one day after a report that says that the U.S. is on track to become the leading oil and gas producer by 2020, which suggests that the U.S. has the capability to match Germany’s green movement, but is instead using its resources to deepen its dependency on fossil fuels.

Many community organizers have given up on government and are moving to spark a green movement in the U.S. through energy cooperatives.

Anya Schoolman is a D.C. organizer who has started many co-ops in the district although she began with no experience. She says that converting to renewable energy one person at a time would not work in the U.S. because of legal complexities and tax laws that discourage people from investing in clean energy.

Grid managers in the U.S., she explains, often require households to turn off wind turbines at night, a practice called “curtailment.”

“It’s a favor to the utility companies,” she says, which don’t hold as much power in Germany as they do in the United States.

Individuals and cooperatives own 65 percent of Germany’s renewable energy capacity. In the U.S. they own 2 percent. The rest is privately controlled.

The largest difference, panelists said, between Germany and the U.S. is how reactive the government is to its citizens.

Democracy in Germany has meant keeping and strengthening regulatory agencies while forming policies that put public ownership ahead of private ownership.

“In the end,” says Davidson, who spent a month in Germany studying the Energiewende, “it isn’t about making money. It’s about quality of life.”

© 2012 Thomas Hedges

Merced Sun-Star

Supervisors back Santa Nella solar project…RAMONA GIWARGIS

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a 110-megawatt solar facility, spanning 1,012 acres in the Santa Nella area, during last week's board meeting.

The decision came after a public hearing and consideration of testimony from supporters and opponents of the project.

The project will install 300,000 solar panels on eight parcels of Santa Nella's agricultural land on the north and south sides of McCabe Road and on the west side of Whitworth Road, according to Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.

The project began in 2010 when the private owners of the land -- River West Investment Inc. -- approached the county with the idea. In partnership with SunPower Corp., they applied jointly for approval of the project.

The land is within an agricultural reserve, which is why the Board of Supervisors had to take action. County officials said the land was not covered by the Williamson Act, which restricts developing agricultural land.

The facility will supply power to homes in Southern California, not in the valley.

Those in favor of the project say it will create jobs, boost the local economy and diversify Merced County's energy portfolio.

"The Board of Supervisors' approval shows their razor-sharp focus on helping create jobs in our community," Hendrickson said.

"Our residents will benefit from the influx of economic benefits to our community."

The project will employ about 315 temporary construction workers for a 16-month period. Hendrickson said the county will make every effort to fill those jobs with local workers.

Once the 16-month construction period ends, the facility will hire five workers in permanent positions, including maintenance and electrical jobs.

According to Hendrickson, other benefits include a guaranteed $1.84 million in sales tax revenue from the purchase of construction supplies -- which goes directly into Merced County's pocket.

The agreement provides $240,000 to public safety agencies, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Merced County Sheriff's Department, for services at the project site.

Hendrickson added that the 30-year project will bring in $18.5 million in anticipated income -- salaries, wages and benefits -- during its first 20 years.

But opponents of the project say the environmental impact outweighs the economic potential.

As part of the project, 204 almond trees will be cut down and an estimated 21 farmworkers will lose their jobs.

There is concern about the safety and survival of one of California's most endangered animals, common in that area, the San Joaquin kit fox.

Merced County assistant planning director Bill Nicholson said the project is a "fully mitigated," which means the environmental impacts were addressed by the applicants of the project.

For example, they will build a corridor for the kit foxes to move north and will also conserve a "2-1 agricultural mitigation."

A 2-1 mitigation agreement means that for every acre of "prime agricultural land" consumed in this project, two acres will be preserved elsewhere in Merced County -- at the discretion of the applicant.

Of the 1,012 acres used in the project, Hendrickson said 496 acres were considered prime agricultural land. Double that number -- 992 acres -- will be preserved in another part of Merced County. This land cannot be used for anything other than agricultural purposes.

Hendrickson noted the solar facility will help the state meet their energy goals under Assembly Bill 32, signed into law in 2006, which mandates that 33 percent of California's energy portfolio must be derived from renewable sources by the year 2020.

But another concern for opponents is that the facility will not supply power to homes in the valley. Hendrickson said that's part of the Power Purchase Agreement.