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Low on water, California farmers turn to solar farming (grist.org)
85 points by ishikawa 66 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

>> at the southern end of the Central Valley, is putting up 4,000 acres of solar panels, and setting aside 2,000 acres of habitat for kit foxes and burrowing owls, as environmental mitigation.

The thing about solar panels is that you don't need to fence off the wildlife. If installed properly, kit foxes can live among the panels. You just cannot bury the cables without thinking. If you armor them (steel or concrete conduits) then there is no reason not to let the critters share space with the panels.

The shade from the panels can create a less harsh environment. As a general rule, new artificial structures increase habitat diversity to the benefit of small critters which in turn feed larger critters. Think of artificial reefs. A field full of solar panels might be an easier place to live, support more wildlife, than the 'natural" landscape.

I seen an article about one farm with raised panels that catch about 50% of the sun, not only does the grass still grow but the sheep that eat the grass like having the shade from the hot sun.

The land with two revenue streams now makes more money than it did before when it was only a sheep ranch.

Do you happen to have a link to that article? I would read it.

Might have been in the previous discussion, or the LATimes story: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20589397

but the sheep that eat the grass like having the shade from the hot sun.

So in 50-500 years, all the sheep are talking about paleo vs primal vs other diets !! And then maybe we got Amish sheep too who dont use shade.

/meant to be taken as a joke, not as an insult.

Yes I was wondering about what the net effect of a field of panels might have on the soils beneath them. Whether we'll see animals take shelter there, birds nest, etc. Whether parched soils might recover moisture easier under shade, and so on.

I'm sure there's been studies on this, would be interesting to see them.

There's a 1300-acre photovoltaic plant in San Benito County that sits on a 5000-acre wildlife preserve. It's a bit of a natural experiment in that area.

Could you help us locate it? Per wiki it should have been here https://earth.google.com/web/@36.62039334,-120.86993211,395....

Google's imagery is out of date. You can see the plant quite clearly in Planet Labs [0] (free account may be required).

[0]: https://www.planet.com/explorer/#/mosaic/global_monthly_2019...

I wonder if they did a survey now if they find the density of animals higher under the panels than out in the open.

Once you consider heat from the sun, and hunting birds looking at small prey in open fields I would not be surprised that the panels provide shelter that the wildlife uses.

USDA has programs like Conservation Reserve that pay farmers not to work land for 10+ years in order to improve environmental quality. If studies can establish what types solar installations can meet the requirements of the program that could be a big win win.

Of course it doesn't make sense to conserve land that is having its water cut off.

> Of course it doesn't make sense to conserve land that is having its water cut off

This is very short sighted.

Restoring topsoil at scale is beyond current technology.

For example, the Sahara desert was fertile before it was over farmed, then abandoned.


Future generations may find better uses for this land than solar farming, but probably not if we ruin it now.

Even before then, ruining the land with reckless solar installations could lead to further desertification in neighboring areas. Again, this is still happening with the Sahara (though not because of solar):


To be clear, we need to build solar as fast as possible, but not at the cost of needlessly wrecking the planet even more.

What? That article says it was caused by changing rain patterns:

“300 to 5,500 years ago: Retreating monsoonal rains initiate desiccation in the Egyptian Sahara, prompting humans to move to remaining habitable niches in Sudanese Sahara. The end of the rains and return of desert conditions throughout the Sahara after 5,500 coincides with population return to the Nile Valley and the beginning of pharaonic society.”

Totally baffled as to what you are talking about. If the land no longer has access to water and thus can't be used for farming anymore why would the government pay to conserve it for future farming?

The Sahara example isn't applicable because this is land that was made suitable for farming through artificial means.

You also seem to think solar farms ruin the land. I explicitly talk about doing solar in such a way that would qualify for the conservation program that improves land.

> https://www.livescience.com/4180-sahara-desert-lush-populate...

That page is terrible - email subscription modal, asking for notification permissions, attempts to load a Flash plugin, and stuffed to the gills with display and banner ads.

Sheep can be quite a good match with solar panels, in certain climates the presence of solar panels can actually increase the number of sheep that can sustainably graze an area. So it isn't even as if the actual farming has to stop.

I'd like to see a movement towards growing crops back east and midwest where soils are rich and water more plentiful. It doesn't seem to me like the central valley is a long term sustainable place to be concentrating agricultural production.

California's seemingly ideal growing conditions are only ideal when imported irrigation water is cheap and plentiful. There's whole swathes of the east and midwest that have been abandoned to cheap cash crop farming that could be growing nuts, market vegetables, fruits, etc. without the same water fears.

Consumers would simply have to get used to different varieties -- more cold hardy and fungal resistant varieties of stone fruits and grapes, hazelnuts instead of almonds, etc.

Iowa is quite nearly 100% covered with farms (talk about habitat destruction) and much of it was wetlands with the water table all the way up at the surface -- think very large very shallow lake. Water is drained from the soil instead of irrigated.

The problem is the crops grown are nearly all used for animal feed, fuel production, and feedstock for industrial food (corn syrup, starch, etc, soybean oil, and others)

It's hard to connect the farmed crops to food you'd like to eat. It's done because federal policies, technologies, economics and tradition and there isn't a great motivation to change.

I'm going to inherit the family farm duties sooner or later and the concept of growing feed for ethanol plants and industrial livestock isn't exactly appealing.

I'm from Iowa and remarked to a friend how nice Wisconsin is, with rolling hills and trees. Iowa is absolutely filled with agriculture.

I've thought about what it does to animals and plants. With vast cropland, how could a limited set of funds have the greatest impact? Could we eliminate some gravel roads and replace them with trees and plants and make an appreciable difference? Could we eliminate some roads and make bigger fields (less no-value added time turning equipment around and driving between fields) and add a reserve along the remaining roads? What plants would survive alright if there is overspray from the fields?

If I recall right, the guy who started fortnite has been buying large swaths of land and returning them to nature in West Virginia.

I hope some day we all stop eating meat and dairy. Then we won’t waste all this farmland just to feed livestock.

Then we will just be using the same land to grow bulk cereals and pulses in an effort to provide us with the same nutrition. Animals eat things we can't and turn it into nutrient dense food.

California ag started late enough to avoid the concentrations of anthropogenic arsenic found in the Southeast US. Lead arsenate and calcium arsenate were promoted at the time of the Dust Bowl, which didn't affect CA. as much as the midwest. Places with a heritage of cotton used arsenic for even longer. Anthropogenic arsenic is inorganic. It does not decompose, so it bioaccumulates in plants. Some varieties can be bred for arsenic resistance. Some plants collect more arsenic than others.

What's the viability of breeding plants to concentrate as much arsenic as possible, and then spending several growing seasons extracting it from fields, collecting the plants, and disposing of them?

I wondered the same. A quick Google turned up the fact, "Oh, yeah, that's been investigated and there ARE options."

Chinese brake fern (Pteris vittata) seems to be a candidate: https://www.newsweek.com/plant-arsenic-chemical-highly-toxic...

Plants as Useful Vectors to Reduce Environmental Toxic Arsenic Contenthttps://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3913097/

I do have to wonder if we would find ourselves inviting invasive species with such an exercise. But on the other hand, the goal is to "grow'em, burn'em, and carefully dispose of the ash" so maybe that concern is manageable.

Fungus have been looked as one option for this. They are excellent bioaccumulators.

Or perhaps genetically modified fungus that emits a signature colorant proportional to its uptake of a contaminant. This would be a cheap way to screen a large area for levels of contamination.

California irrigation faces its own problems: https://psmag.com/environment/cleaning-up-californias-three-...

Both selenium and arsenic are considered trace elements. Selenium much more so; most of the world's diet is selenium-poor. But selenium supplements are useful in counteractive arsenic poisoning: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23800687

I remember someone was trying to breed a species of rice to not bioaccumulate arsenic, specifically to plant in former cotton fields.

Wait, people were promoting arsenic?

Arsenic trioxide was widely used as a herbicide. A typical application would be something like 1 pound/1000 sq feet. ( 50kg/hectare for the rest of planet earth).

So dosing a field will take about as big a sack as you can carry and 250mg will kill you.

Extra fun fact: I got the application rate numbers from an article about controlling weeds on golf courses.

When people have a feeling about herbicides being dangerous… this is the kind of herbicide that caused it.

Extra bonus fun fact: My father's grandmother used to make up a mixture of arsenic trioxide and mercury to paint around the windows to keep bugs out of the house.

Arsenic was used for damn near everything from agriculture to manufacturing until about 100 years ago. It's a very effective pesticide (it kills everything!) and there weren't a whole lot of other options back then that actually worked.


Copper arsenate was banned in pressure treated lumber in the US effective January 2004.

(edit: I had thought this was in WA only, but wikipedia says national)

Lead arsenate was sprayed all over apples. Up until the 70s in some places.

We're really smart apes, we are.

According to wiki

> Alternatives [to lead arsenate] were found to be less effective or more toxic to plants and animals, until 1947 when DDT was found.

Pretty interesting huh!

Don't forget the lovely green wallpaper that was arsenic based.

It wasn't just wallpaper - virtually anything that was green in that period was done with arsenic. There was also this tragedy (arsenic included among others):


Same people who sold you cocaine.

Better soak all that rice coming out of Arkansas.

I'm east and the soil is almost 100% sand with no nutrients but at least we have water

Hydroponics greenhouses sound like a viable answer.

California produces almost entirely specialty crops. Not saying it wouldn’t happen, but it would require a huge shift in types of produce available to consumers if CA ag changed.

There was a recent publication that modeled combined agriculture and solar photovoltaic farms, and found that less than 1% of current cropland would be needed to supply current world demand for energy:


And the rate of converting agricultural land to other uses is about 1% per decade, at least here in the US, so it's a tiny amount of land.

The stable income for farmers is also a big win, too. Economically, this all makes sense. We just need execution, and education about the tradeoffs for something like this.

I've seen these in other places including this presentation from Elon Musk...


Storage, transmission and general adoption are some of the difficulties with solar adoption. I actually does not take a huge amount of space.

What is the economic and environmental impact of manufacturing and installing that number of solar panels? And the biggest issues has always been getting the energy from where it is harvested, to where the demand is.

Both the economic and environmental impacts would be massively beneficial. If this idea sounds difficult because it sounds big, remember that we are already supplying global energy needs, just with far worse and older technology that is aging and needs to be replaced with new units on a regular time scale.

Solar is one of the cheapest possible energy sources and getting cheaper every year. Farmers across the midwest are already raking in profits merely for leasing the land for solar projects that others own; if farmers finance and install on their own the economic benefits to them and to the rest of society would be massive, especially compared to business-as-usual natural gas and goal.

Solar is also one of the cleanest in nearly every sense; in terms of amount of solar panels we'd need to scale up production, but recycling is starting to go full boar, and even without any recycling the environmental impacts of a kWh of solar are

Farms typically have fairly hefty connections to the grid because of high peak usage, but clearly there could be some contention that could be solved with greater transmission deployments or that the market could solve by pricing the connection fees.

I wonder if there's value for farmers in having solar panels act as rain collectors and use that water to replace groundwater irrigation. Probably the ratio of solar panel area to cropland would have to be too large to be practical.

Solar requires water too, though: Those panels need to be cleaned regularly.

This source suggests that parabolic solar plants use about one quarter the amount per acre as agriculture: https://www.seia.org/initiatives/water-use-management

Unfortunately, I don't see anything right away that discusses water use for photovoltaics. I guess that it's even lower, but I honestly have no idea.

So yes, the transition does reduce water use, but doesn't eliminate it.

Doesn't it rain over there? I don't think solar panels need that much of a cleaning if there is occasional rain that rinses the dust from the panels, when the wind alone is not enough.

If you have not seen estimates of fallowed crop land due to SGMA regulation in California, I suggest some googling. Some estimates are 500,000 acres takes out of production in dry years. Areas of the south Central Valley with high permanent plantings (trees) and overdrafted groundwater basins are likely going to see hard times in the coming years.

Previous discussion: California farmers are planting solar panels as water supplies dry up (latimes.com) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20589397

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