Solar on farmland could help California keep the lights on – Los Angeles Times

Source: By Sammy Roth, Los Angeles Times • Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2021

To the extent most Californians are thinking about energy right now, they’re probably wondering whether the lights will stay on during the next heat wave.

It’s a reasonable fear, especially after the state’s power grid operator issued an urgent call for electricity supplies last week and warned of possible shortfalls this summer. The California Independent System Operator is seeking bids from power plants that can fire up after sundown, when solar panels stop generating but air conditioners keep humming.

Why the newfound urgency? State officials wrote that California’s ability to produce hydropower could be reduced by as much as 1,000 megawatts this summer as reservoir levels fall due to drought. At least 300 megawatts of gas-fired power won’t be available either due to “unforeseen circumstances.” And a few hundred megawatts of new energy resources that were expected to be ready to go by Aug. 1 — mostly lithium-ion batteries — could be “delayed by one to several months,” officials wrote.

They also pointed to recent heat waves across the American West as evidence California can no longer rely so heavily on electricity imports from other states. Like falling water levels at reservoirs, it’s a problem the climate crisis has worsened.

“Summer has barely begun and we have already had repeated extreme heat events creating dangerous conditions and shattering records,” leaders of the Independent System Operator, the Public Utilities Commission and the Energy Commission wrote in a joint statement. “Climate change is here and with increasing intensity.”

So the next few months could be a wild ride, with more rolling blackouts a possibility.

But the challenge of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy, without sending us plunging into darkness, will extend far beyond this summer. With that in mind, let’s zoom out and look at an enormous solar project in California’s farm country that helps tell the story of the state’s energy future — and its water future, too.

I’m talking about Westlands Solar Park, which is currently being built in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. I drove up last month, staying the night in Kettleman City, just off the 5 freeway, before heading northeast to the project site the next morning.

The place was a beehive of activity. More than 400 construction workers were keeping busy in the summer heat, many of them unloading solar panels from tractors, methodically placing them on steel racks and screwing them into place.

Here’s what it looked like, from my perspective:

Westlands Solar Park under construction

Westlands Solar Park is being built in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. (Sammy Roth / Los Angeles Times)

Construction workers with the Westlands Solar Park project

Construction workers at Westlands Solar Park project unload solar panels from a tractor, place them on steel racks and screw them into place. (Sammy Roth / Los Angeles Times)

Westlands Solar Park under construction

The developer of Westlands Solar Park has permits to build 670 megawatts. (Sammy Roth / Los Angeles Times)

I’d never been to such a massive construction site before, but then again I don’t know of any other solar farms this big.

The project’s developer, Los Angeles-based real estate firm CIM Group, has permits to build 670 megawatts, which would be nearly 100 megawatts larger than the biggest U.S. solar farm operating today. The developer ultimately plans to install at least 2,700 megawatts by the end of the decade, across more than 20,000 acres — an area two-thirds the size of San Francisco.

CIM started building the first 250 megawatts last year and expects to finish this fall. Interestingly, the developer only has contracts in place for half that power — a sign they’re highly confident they’ll be able to find buyers for the rest at a profitable price.

“We decided to move forward knowing that the need is there,” CIM co-founder Avi Shemesh told me. “The need for power is tremendous, and the commitment (to clean energy), we believe, from the governmental agencies here is unequivocal.”

I sat down with Shemesh outside his company’s office on Wilshire Boulevard near Hancock Park, the week after touring the construction site. He told me CIM expects to spend “substantially north” of $4 billion to $5 billion building Westlands Solar Park.

That confidence was rewarded last month when the Public Utilities Commission ordered utilities and local governments to buy 11,500 megawatts of new, clean power by 2026. It’s a giant batch of energy designed to replace power plants retiring in the next few years, including the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors and several gas generators along the Southern California coast.

Just adding a bunch of solar power won’t help much on scorching summer nights. But future phases of Westlands Solar Park — and most big solar farms from now on — will almost certainly include battery banks that can store a few hours’ worth of electricity for the evening. And as fossil fuels fade away, the state will need loads more climate-friendly power during the day, too.

“The needs in California are tremendous. And it’s not an issue of you need it tomorrow morning,” Shemesh said.

Construction site of Westlands Solar Park on June 24

A view of the construction site of Westlands Solar Park on June 24. (Gary Kazanjian / For The Times)

Another noteworthy facet of the solar project is the identities of the buyers, at least the ones that have signed up so far.

One is the city of Santa Clara, which agreed to buy 75 megawatts. The other is Valley Clean Energy, a government-run “community choice” agency, or CCA, that serves the cities of Davis, Winters and Woodland, and parts of unincorporated Yolo County.

Neither of those buyers is an investor-owned utility — you know, like Pacific Gas & Electric or Southern California Edison. As more local governments go the community choice route, the big utilities are increasingly being pushed out of the business of buying and selling electricity, prompting them to shift their focus to the poles and wires that move power around the state.

When a tidal wave of cities and counties started launching community choice programs a few years ago, skeptics were concerned they would be disruptive — and not in a good way. What if local governments didn’t have the financial wherewithal to withstand swings in energy markets? Would they be able to sign long-term contracts and get solar and wind farms built without long credit histories? What if they had to set electricity rates higher than expected, sending customers streaming back to the big utilities?

Thus far, those fears mostly have not come to pass. Severin Borenstein, an energy economist at UC Berkeley who worried early on that community choice could do more harm than good, now says the programs “are actually doing something useful” by providing competition in the energy marketplace. While he’s still concerned about the potential for bankruptcies — Western Community Energy in Riverside County became the first CCA to close its doors last month — he thinks the sector is in good shape.

“Now that this is a serious industry, they are starting to adopt serious industry practices,” Borenstein said.

For the Westlands Solar Park team, negotiating power sales with local governments has become a fact of life in California.

“We and our lenders are underwriting the specific risk of each CCA on its own. But we think they’re here to stay, with some exceptions,” Shemesh told me.

CIM’s solar project could also help California resolve one of its thorniest water challenges.

San Joaquin Valley farmers have been overpumping groundwater for decades, resulting in sinking land, buckling canals and household wells running dry, and threatening a future of severe water shortages, especially as climate change dries up rivers and snowpack. The situation is especially bad on “drainage-impaired” farmlands where the soil is loaded with crop-killing salts — and toxic selenium — because clay layers beneath the dirt prevent irrigation water from percolating into the underground aquifer.

The federal government has been fighting with Westlands Water District over the future of those troublesome lands for decades, ever since it was discovered that the original solution to the drainage problem — sending irrigation runoff to Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge east of San Jose — was killing ducks and other waterfowl and causing grotesque birth defects in birds.

The 20-megawatt Maricopa West solar project, surrounded by almond groves, in California's Kern County.

The 20-megawatt Maricopa West solar project, surrounded by almond groves, in California’s Kern County. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Solar offers at least a partial solution, giving Westlands Water District a good economic reason to take land out of agricultural production and not make the drainage problems worse. For CIM, the availability of so much land — without the environmental conflicts that have plagued renewable energy development elsewhere — helped to make the giant investment worthwhile.

“Being in a position of this scale, it just gives us a platform to really contribute to where the state is going in terms of decarbonization,” Shemesh said, referring to the process of drawing down planet-warming carbon emissions.

More broadly, experts say farmers may need to take more than half a million acres out of production in the San Joaquin Valley to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Solar could help replace some of the lost jobs and tax revenues.

The California grid operator estimates that about 2,000 additional megawatts are needed to limit the risk of rotating outages this summer. It’s yet to be seen whether power companies will step forward with that much energy. A lot may depend on circumstances elsewhere in the West. The recent unexpected shutdown of a unit at New Mexico’s San Juan coal plant, for instance, is the kind of event that could further limit California’s ability to import power from other states during the next big heat wave.

Longer term, California’s ability to keep the lights on — and the rest of the country’s willingness to follow its lead — will depend on an unprecedented infrastructure buildout, from giant projects like Westlands to lots more solar systems on rooftops. The alternative is a future of heat waves that will make the temperatures records of the last few weeks feel quaint.