California Agriculture-Pollinator-Solar (CAPS) Working Group

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD) are convening a working group, the California Agriculture-Pollinator-Solar (CAPS) Working Group, to realize the opportunity of repurposing fallowed cropland in the Central Valley with pollinator-friendly solar.

Opportunity

Three forces in California – farmers’ decreasing access to water, the decline in pollinator species including the western monarch butterfly, and the rapid growth of solar power – create a unique opportunity for problem solving that can have long-lasting benefits. Co-locating ground-mounted solar PV and pollinator habitat on fallowed farmland offers an alternative land use when farming is no longer viable due to water supply issues. This could benefit producers through recovery of lost crop revenue, support ecosystems through the recovery of declining pollinator habitat, and support solar developers building on fallowed farms and leaving undisturbed lands in their natural state. In the long-term, the land under the solar PV may be rejuvenated during the fallow period and later be re-covered as high-productive farmland. It could be an amazing solution! However, challenges exist to realizing these social, economic, and environmental benefits.

Background

Solar PV’s rapid growth in California:
California is a leader in addressing climate change through the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources to generate electricity for its citizens. The state has set aggressive clean energy goals, and many counties have Climate Action Plans that include their own goals around renewable energy sources. Solar PV is the fastest growing renewable energy source, with new solar coming online to supply utilities and Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs). While solar generation is driving achievement of greenhouse gas goals, there are ecological concerns about solar being built on undisturbed lands, especially fragile desert landscapes in California.

The California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA):
Prolonged drought has led to excessive pumping of groundwater to irrigate crops, resulting in severe depletion of California’s groundwater. To address the groundwater depletion crisis, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) imposes pumping restrictions in overdrafted regions like the Central Valley, and along with increasing drought conditions, is expected to cause hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland to be taken out of production. Farmers who can no longer generate income from farming their lands need and seek alternative revenue opportunities. Some are starting to convert their croplands to ground-mounted solar, often leasing their land to solar power companies who generate electricity for utilities and Community Choice Aggregations (CCAs) whose customers demand that their power be generated from renewable sources. While farmers and/or solar providers may wish to add pollinator habitat, ways to reduce the cost burden on them must be identified to make these efforts feasible.

Solar PV’s potential to fight the decline of pollinator populations is being recognized:
Pollinators are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food. They also sustain our ecosystems and natural resources by helping plants reproduce. Many pollinators including various bees and butterflies are experiencing rapid population declines and extinction. Some solar sites in the Midwest are already adding pollinator habitat on their facilities, but conditions are quite different than California. While there have been some small projects in California, there is much to be learned before large scale implementation of pollinator-friendly solar is possible.

Approach

We will focus largely on counties in the Central Valley and adjacent areas that are among California’s top agriculture producers, where drought hurts production and/or water basins are critically over-drafted, and where the placement of solar facilities on agricultural land is already happening and/or feasible. Solutions the working group develops will have implications for much of the west where drought is impacting crop production.

All stakeholders’ perspectives are important, and challenges must be identified and addressed:
A team of EPRI experts with engineering, sustainability, and ecology backgrounds are conducting extensive analysis related to the co-location of pollinator habitat and ground-mounted solar from the perspective of solar owners, operators, developers, and other involved parties. The envisioned CAPS Working Group will determine how to reduce the pain for farmers who must repurpose their land for solar due to drought and groundwater depletion – offering an alternative source of revenue and an opportunity to stay connected to the land for future generations. However, siting pollinator-friendly solar on fallowed farmland faces challenges, including:

• How do we ensure that the cost of adding and maintaining pollinator habitat does not burden solar developers and landowners at the outset and over time?
• Potential for the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 to be at odds with converting from crops to solar.
• The need to ensure that addition of solar facilities with pollinator habitat does not negatively impact adjacent farmland (due to issues like poor weed management).
• Should we consider solar facilities as “temporary”? Could soil and water be renewed enough during the project life that it can be brought back into crop production in the future?

Short Term Objectives:

• Create the CAPS Working Group comprised of key stakeholders such as utilities, community choice aggregators (CCAs), agencies, resource conservation districts (RCDs), farmers, pollinator experts, environmental organizations, academics, and researchers.
• The working group will meet 5 to 6 times to gather information, identify challenges, brainstorm solutions, and agree on key actions.
• EPRI and CARCD will compile a report of the working group’s findings and recommendations, which will serve as the basis for the next phase of the effort.

Long Term Objectives:

• Create a smooth pathway for farmers hampered by chronic water shortages to continue to use their land to and to generate income, while making a positive contribution to the environment.
• Consideration of pollinators in the solar installations on farmlands, thereby improving pollination services to nearby crop fields.
• Communities that will be home to increasing solar and decreasing crops enjoy benefits such as energy resilience, water quality, bees and butterflies, and more.

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Contacts

Nancy Wahl-Scheurich, CARCD, nancy-wahlscheurich@carcd.org
Jessica Fox, Senior Technical Executive, EPRI, jfox@epri.com