The Gates electrical substation along Interstate 5 in Kings County, California, is just one of the reasons the area is ripe for solar development.
By John Lindt
California's Tulare County produces about 26 percent of the state's milk supply and 55 percent of its oranges, and is one of the few places in the world where giant Sequoias reproduce. What it doesn’t seem to do is produce anywhere near enough electric power to meet its needs.
While the county has a few generating facilities – mostly small hydroelectric plants dating from the early 20th century – altogether they produce only about 50 megawatts of power. That compares to demand countywide of about 1,000 mw, says Doug Carter, principal with SolarGenUSA, which hopes to build a score of new solar farms in the county.
MAP CREDIT: SOLAR HOME & BUSINESS JOURNAL
"To us it makes more sense to build relatively small 20-mw power facilities close to where the power is needed rather than seeking permits for large utility-size solar plants that need to wheel power long distance," argues Mr. Carter.
SolarGenUSA and a handful of other developers, some from around the world, are proposing several dozen solar projects from the mini to the mega scale in Tulare and Kings counties in Central California, renowned as one of the world's major producers of fruit, nuts and other agricultural products.
Many Californians might be surprised to learn that the state’s two largest utilities, Southern California Edison Co. and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., got their starts in Tulare County harnessing power on the Kaweah and Tule rivers many decades ago. Together these hydro facilities still produce about 10 mw when the water flows are high – enough to light up about 600 homes.
But neither the big utility companies nor anyone else had ever shown much additional interest in developing power in Tulare County – until now.
Next door in Kings County, a company called GWF Energy has built two new natural-gas power plants in the modern era. These have been used as "peaker" power plants – fired up to provide power for the grid when demand rises, as on hot summer days. Although expansion plans are under way, the power produced is a fraction of what people in Kings County need every day.
This part of the Central Valley may have been ignored by energy developers for most of the past century, but in 2010 it is suddenly ground zero for the solar transformation of California.
Under the radar, residents are adding solar at their homes in increasing numbers. But it is the commercial projects that present some eye-popping numbers.
The megawatts being proposed run the gamut from a 1-mw system to be installed at the Tulare wastewater plant later this year to 5,000 mw of photovoltaic power proposed in Kings County by Westlands Holdings. The largest nuclear power plant complex in the United States, the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona, has a net capacity of about 3,900 mw.
Tulare County has attracted 13 applications for special-use permits, mostly up to about 20 mw in capacity. In Kings County, the potential projects range from the 5- to 20-mw size on about 40 to 150 or so acres to the 5,000-mw behemoth that would be sited on 30,000 fallow acres of distressed farmland in the Westlands Water District, almost all of it in Kings County.
Also in the mega category, the company Canergy is working on a 20-mw project called KingSolar in Kings County and a much larger, utility-scale 500-mw solar farm along Interstate 5 on the southern edge of Kings County.
Chesley Chao, project developer for Canergy, says KingSolar “has been filed with the California System Operator and is in their queue,” noting that the location for now is confidential. The company’s website says the big 500-megawatt project is being proposed in Quay Valley, a 20-square-mile “new town” project proposed south of Kettleman City along I-5. Mr. Chao declined to provide more details except to say the project is the planning stage.
John Lehn, president of the Kings County Economic Development Corp., traveled to China in April to meet with Canergy and Chinese government officials along with California Energy Commission Vice Chairman James Boyd. In China, a letter of intent was signed to bring the big project to Kings County.
A third large project in Kings County would be a potential 2,900-acre solar farm on land owned by Naval Air Station Lemoore.The U.S. Navy has gone through the first step in soliciting developer interest in a contract to set up a solar project there on leased land. A Navy spokesman said further news could come in a few months.
The lack of water for farming on the west side of the Central Valley is a driving factor for developers to look at installing solar panels on this former farmland – a development that requires little or no water.
Why is this area of the Valley suddenly on the solar energy radar screen? It’s not just because the sun shines brightly in these parts, although it does.
Energy planners say western Kings County sits along the most important transmission lines connecting populous California's north and south. As the state moves to increase the amount of renewable energy it produces to 33 percent of its energy mix by 2020, developers are in a race to site solar and wind farms up and down California, preferably where hookup costs are lower.
Before this year, the highly prized territories tended to be in the desert areas of the state, where plenty of renewables, both solar and wind, are already installed. But environmental opposition to the use of desert land has increasingly led planners to look elsewhere for large utility-size projects that would have less environmental impact.
The developers are working with the private utilities on agreements to buy the power the projects will put out.
Energy planners are concerned over the cost of adding transmission lines to move renewable power from rural areas where it is expected to be generated to urban areas where it is needed.
“They could build 1,000 megawatts of solar power in Westlands right now without adding any new transmission capacity,” says Sierra Club spokesman Carl Zichella, who advises state officials on transmission issues. Mr. Zichella strongly supports the idea of placing utility-size solar on retired farmlands like the Westlands acreage. The lands are tainted by high salinity and contamination of the soil, and unlike more natural areas, attract little wildlife.
“I see plenty of reasons to do the Westlands solar project and no reasons why not,” Mr. Zichella says.
One possible reason to move on this idea is that unlike many of the dozens of pending projects proposed on relatively pristine land around the state, this project could potentially be approved quickly, without drawn-out legal battles.
Meanwhile, some other large solar projects around the state are being scaled back or dropped altogether. A proposal to build hundreds of megawatts in the Owens Valley on an ancient lakebed was put on hold by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which planned to use the power, when tests showed that “if solar panel platforms were placed at the southern end of the nearly dry 110-square-mile Owens Lake, they would sink as much as several inches into extremely corrosive soil," the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month.
Plans to build a 400-mw solar farm in San Benito County on 5,000 acres of farmland were scaled back recently after local opposition arose. A long-planned solar-and-biomass project near Coalinga, called San Joaquin Solar 1 & 2, was dropped suddenly, reportedly because of neighbors' concerns about truck traffic from waste hauling for the biomass part of the project.
A company may propose the first solar project in the Westlands area soon. Dan Kim, a principal with Westlands Holdings, says the firm is in discussions with developers, but "nothing is signed yet."
Mr. Kim says an environmental impact report on the mammoth solar electricity project – the largest ever proposed in the world – could start in three months. Supporters say that while many other solar projects statewide would have environmental impacts, utility-scale solar power plants in a place like Westlands, combined with urban utility-size solar, plus residential and distributed PV projects, could allow the state to meet its 33 percent renewable energy target for 2020 with virtually no environmental impact.
“This is the best place in the state to do this,” Mr. Kim says.
One continuing theme in the estimate of how much large-scale solar California will need in the future appears to be a moving target, with a smaller need anticipated than even a year ago for large-scale solar projects as more “ distributed energy” -- typically smaller in scale and close to the energy demand -- is built.
If the Central Valley is the best place to generate renewable electricity to send to the cities, it also may be the best place to generate power for local needs, argues SolarGenUSA’s Doug Carter.
Mr. Carter says his company is working on 280 mw of power in the Central Valley – all of it "distributed" generation from medium-sized solar power plants that would be built on parcels leased from owners.
“We locate them close to the substations, so connection is easy,” he says.
Solar Gen USA scouts the area for sites near a power substation. The company has seven pending projects and more in the works in Tulare County, totaling 120 mw. In Kings County, Mr. Carter says the company is working on two projects totaling 30 mw near Avenal on the west side of the Kettleman Hills.
Mr. Carter suggests this approach makes sense from the all-important financing angle, noting that a 20-mw deal requires much less financing than a huge project for which costs could run in the billions – with a "b."
"Scaling up to more 20-mw projects can be done quickly if you need more," he says.
SouFarmland Tax Break?
One cloud hanging over the solar projects in Tulare and Kings is whether the county in each case would allow the landowner to continue to claim a special agricultural tax advantage, called a Williamson Act tax break.
The California Farm Bureau Federation and local farm bureaus have questioned whether the tax break ought to be allowed in the case of solar development. Each county board of supervisors makes the decision, and Kings County's board has already approved several solar projects on Williamson Act land.
Some landowners argue that for now, the farmland doesn’t have a water supply, and that sometime in the future it could return to farm use once a solar lease expires. In Tulare County, an advisory committee is looking into a point system that would be based on whether the land is considered prime agricultural property.
A number of pending applications for solar farms in Tulare County are in the western part of the county, not on prime land. Likewise in Kings County, where some farmers say they don’t have water to farm all their acreage but could use the income from solar to continue farming on the rest of their land.
Following is a list of pending solar applications or known negotiations in the two-county area:
SolarGenUSA : seven projects filed in Tulare County: one near the Rector substation east of Visalia and another near Terra Bella, with three more filed near Alpaugh, totaling 120 mw. Spokesman Doug Carter says he hopes to have all entitlements in place to move forward by the end of this year. SolarGenUSA, based in Colorado, says it is developing more than 280 megawatts of distributed photovoltaic electricity from installations to be located primarily within California's Central Valley.
SolarGenUSA’s focus is the development of smaller sites compatible with leased agricultural property. Each facility can generate typically 20 megawatts of solar power and is located where energy demand exists and transmission is less impeded. The company says it is working with Southern California Edison on agreements to buy the power in Tulare County. It has two proposed projects in Kings County, in Avenal.
DTE Energy: Based in Detroit, the company is working on one 20-mw project in the Angiola Water District in southwest Tulare County. It has applied for a permit.
Solar Project Solutions (SPS): A joint venture between Samsung (South Korea) and Enco Utility Services, it has five proposed projects in southwest Tulare County near Alpaugh and near Corcoran in Kings County, totaling 130 megawatts. The venture has power purchase agreements with PG&E. The Corcoran project is 40 mw and is in Corcoran Irrigation District. The firm has applied for permits in both counties.
Recurrent Energy: This San Francisco-based company with permits pending in Kern County is also said to be negotiating in Kings County for several hundred acres with Westlake Farms.
EnXco : This France-based company is said to be working on a project in Corcoran and on other sites in Tulare County.
Eurus: A Japanese company with three projects near Avenal in Kings County (west of the Kettleman Hills), it is in the process of receiving permits from Kings County. The capacity of the projects totals 48 mw. Eurus has a public hearing scheduled this week on approval of a power purchase agreement with PG&E. It is scheduled to deliver power in May 2011. It also is reported to be negotiating for several hundred acres with Westlake Farms in Kings County. The firm has received approval from Kings County for some permits.
Canergy: This U.S. company with China links is working with the Kings County Economic Development Corp. on projects in Kings County. They include the proposed KingSolar 20-mw solar plant.
The company's website says KingSolar is a 20-mw PV project -- the first utility-scale PV power generation facility in the U.S. developed by Canergy. It would be located on previously disturbed agricultural land about one mile from an existing substation.
KingSolar has a land lease contract, the site says, and is undergoing interconnection and transmission studies by the California Independent System Operator, the agency that manages the electricity grid, and environmental permitting. The project is under negotiation with a major utility company in California and is expected to complete a power purchase agreement soon. Construction is planned to start in late 2010 and the project is anticipated to be on line in the second half of 2011, says the Canergy website.
Canergy also is planning to build a 500-mw solar farm in Kings County. According to the company website, it has chosen Quay Valley along Interstate 5 south of Kettleman City as the location.
“Located in Quay Valley, Central California with the access to the best solar resources, the 500 mw solar farm is in development to power a new green city which will be the similar size of Manhattan. The green city will contain 50,000 people and will be 100 percent powered by renewable energy, mainly solar PV and geothermal, upon completion," the site says.
The 500-mw project is planned as part of a strategic cooperation agreement that includes a memorandum of understanding between the state government of California and the Jiangsu provincial government in China to promote renewable energy, energy efficiency and environment protection. A formal agreement is expected to be signed at the end of 2010.
Quay Valley developer Quay Davis said he could not comment on plans for the project on the site of his mothballed "new town" project. That project, when proposed, included a major solar component. But the project has been on hold for nearly two years, after the recession halted development interest and because of water issues.
Westlands solar project: Supported by the California Energy Commission, which designated the area as a special renewable energy zone, and by some environmental groups, this 30,000-acre project could unfold in the next few years on retired farmland in the Westlands Water District. The project would likely be built in phases over a decade or longer and could eventually total 5,000 megawatts.
Solargen Energy: Not to be confused with the Colorado company with a similar name, Solargen Energy, based in Cupertino, Calif., has been working on a permit for a 420-mw PV solar farm in the Panoche Valley in San Benito County west of Interstate 5. The county planning department recently recommended that the project be scaled back to 120 mw.
Kings River Conservation District: Work is said to be ongoing for an 80-mw solar farm in Kings or Fresno counties.
City of Tulare: The city is building a 1-mw solar farm next to its wastewater treatment plant that will generate about 30 percent of its power needs. Construction is expected to be under way this fall.
Besides all the renewable projects vying for approval, there is one big new power plant using fossil fuel that is seeking a final permit to build. Avenal Power is awaiting approval for its permit to build a 600-mw natural-gas-fired plant east of Interstate 5 in Kings County. No power purchase agreement is in place. The location is close to the main north-south high-voltage power lines.
Two other GWF Power conventional energy projects could expand as well. The company has natural-gas plants in Lemoore and Hanford, but with utilities focusing on solar energy, no power purchase agreement is yet in place. Each plant has 95 mw of capacity and is seeking to add 25 mw. The planned upgrades would turn the plants into more efficient "combined cycle" power operations that use both gas turbines and steam systems to generate electricity.