Solar plan proposed in south valley

FRESNO -- About 30,000 fallow acres in western Kings and Fresno counties could return to productivity as home to a massive installation of solar power panels.

Westlands Water District has a lease contract with Westside Holdings, a private investment group with plans for a 5,000-megawatt solar power plant.

If built, it would be one of the largest installations of solar photovoltaic panels in the world, generating enough electricity to meet the demands of 2.5 million to 4 million homes.

It could help spur a "green energy" surge, diversifying the south valley's west side economy from its historic reliance on agriculture.

Westlands Solar Park is one of a growing number of solar projects being pitched for sunny stretches of land in the western and southern San Joaquin Valley.

Plans in three counties

There are at least a dozen utility-scale projects, ranging from 5 to 250 megawatts, planned in Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties.

In Stanislaus County, the Modesto Irrigation District is considering a 25-megawatt project on 160 acres on north McHenry Avenue. The county government is looking into solar plants at the Fink Road landfill and the former dump on Geer Road.

Development, however, can get bogged down by regulatory and environmental review and fund raising. Only one plant has been built -- the 40-acre, 5-megawatt CalRenew-1 plant in Mendota. It awaits testing and connection to the power grid.

The Westlands project stands out for several reasons: It dwarfs anything else on the drawing board in the region; it's planned for farmland retired because of salt buildup and lack of water; and it's making unlikely allies of farmers and environmentalists.

Westlands farmers have long been at odds with environmental groups over concerns including salt-tainted irrigation runoff and water allocations from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But the Sierra Club and others support the Westlands solar proposal.

"Nowhere else in the state will you see environmentalists of all stripes, as well as local government, developers and public interests all aligned to support a development of this size," said Daniel Kim of Sacramento, a principal partner in Westside Holdings.

California's utilities are striving to meet Gov. Schwarzenegger's goal for one-third of the state's electricity to come from renewable or alternative sources by 2020.

That's what attracted support from environmentalists, said Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club's regional staff director for California, Nevada and Hawaii. He called Westlands "one of the finest places" for a large, utility-scale solar installation.

"We're very interested in finding the least environmentally sensitive places to develop," he said. "And early on, we felt Westlands had a lot of potential in this regard."

It's been farmed for years, so the Westlands acreage has little environmental significance. Putting solar panels out there "takes pressure off of other lands that are more ecologically sensitive," Zichella said.

He and Kim said the project has geographic advantages: Westlands is relatively close to cities needing electricity, to Central California's main north-south power transmission lines along Interstate 5, and to substations to distribute the electricity.

There are advantages for the Westlands district as well by putting back to work some of the 100,000 acres of farmland retired over a decade.

Other energy opportunities

It also opens the door for Westlands to consider other alternative-energy options. It has a letter of intent with the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group to identify property in Westlands that might be suitable for a proposed 3,200-megawatt nuclear power plant.

"There are a lot of energy opportunities, whether it's solar, nuclear or something else," said Sarah Woolf, a Westlands spokeswoman, said. "We're open to discussing all of those."

Kim won't predict how long it might take for his proposal to get from the drawing board to production. There are plenty of hoops to jump through, including finding a developer to build and operate the solar farm, negotiating a power-purchase agreement with a utility, and myriad approvals from state and local officials.

But Kim hopes things can move forward quickly because of the environmental support.

One huge question mark is the price tag, which is unknown because no solar photovoltaic project of this size has ever been built.

The Westlands project, and other proposed solar plants in and around the valley with a combined capacity of more than 2,000 megawatts, could attract related industries.

"There could be the manufacture of the panels themselves, the inverters, the steel frames, or any number of widgets that go into a panel," Kim said. "We're talking about an economic base that is built off of the construction and operation of a project of this size."