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Renewables in Agriculture in California


As California strives to meet its climate goals, it must adopt a new wave of renewable and sustainable energy technologies to reach the state’s energy demands and emissions standards. As renewables are becoming economically competitive, electrical grids are relying more heavily on these low-carbon generation resources. While a rapid development and expansion of renewables is transpiring, California, a state with deep roots in agriculture, must work to maximize the output its vast ranches and farmland, which are oftentimes prime locations for siting renewables. Agriculture exists not only as a crucial component of California’s history but as a thriving source of revenue and food security, with California being the most productive agricultural state in America.1 Thus, sustainable energy systems must be carefully integrated into existing agricultural land in order to generate renewable energy and supply farmers (this report’s all-encompassing term for agricultural operators) with an additional source of cash flow without cannibalizing valuable land. To aid in California’s transition, this report investigates the viability of co-locating emerging and established renewable energy technologies within agricultural operations.

The three energy sources focused on in this report are solar, wind, and biogas. Solar energy is an extremely viable technology given its low cost and California’s optimal solar conditions. However, the large land footprint of solar farms threatens agricultural land, so further research into novel solar co-locations is imperative. While wind energy co-locates well with agricultural and livestock operations due to its limited land footprint, many ideal wind conditions occur outside of ranch and farmland regions. Additionally, fugitive methane emissions from cow manure on Californian dairy farms can be collected and turned into biogas in biodigesters and refined into renewable natural gas (RNG). Californian dairy methane emissions will soon be regulated as requirements from Senate Bill 1383 are implemented, so harnessing biogas energy is not optional but will soon be mandatory.

Various incentive programs at the utility, state, and federal levels have proven to be powerful driving forces behind renewable energy commercialization efforts. Chief among these are the Renewable Fuel Standard, the Renewable Portfolio Standard, and various net metering and feed-in tariff programs. However, realizing the energy goals mandated by the legislature will require much more to be done. Further steps in actuating this transition could be as follows:

  • The state of California has a number of successful programs that currently provide funding for a variety of renewable energy investments within the agricultural industry. Due to a large number of qualified applicants, these programs could be expanded to accommodate a broader range of energy technologies and farming operations, especially emerging energy systems that are seen by traditional financial institutions as less lucrative or stable investments. These grants could also be streamlined to ease the administrative burden on farmers and therefore encourage more to apply for them. Straightforward procedures in the application, approval, and implementation phases would reduce the obstacles to the development of successful projects.
  • The Williamson Act protects farmland from urban sprawl and can inhibit the development of solar farms. While current limitations on developments under the Williamson Act are often necessary for the preservation of California’s best farmland, the definition should be adjusted to allow for certain renewable energy developments that complement or preserve farming operations through a co-located design.
  • To further the development of solar without the loss of agricultural land requires continued investments in the R&D of innovative concepts regarding solar and agriculture co-location. This report identifies the following focus areas: the addition of crops under or between the panels that would allow farmers to continue crop production along with energy production; the planting of cover crops under or between panels that would allow for an additional grazing area for some livestock; the development of “movable” solar arrays which pair well with rotational agriculture; and continued development of solar panels that can capture sunlight on both their front and back (bifacial systems). Advancements in these technology areas could yield massive financial benefits to farmers despite heavy up-front costs.
  • To maximize the benefits of the increased renewable energy production, additional financial assistance to acquire and further develop energy storage systems (i.e. batteries), microgrids, natural gas-powered vehicles, and other equipment electrification opportunities, will also be needed.

Through the TomKat Fellows' research, the team was able to provide recommendations to public policy, utilities, and private industry on actions and changes that can be made with renewables in agriculture. The full findings of the TomKat Fellows' research can be found in their final report.