For years, California has been in a state of drought – a result of sparse rainfall coupled with intricate irrigation systems and the inherent difficulties in supplying over 35 million people with water. A budget crisis and political unrest have recently added to the states problems but now, there is a bright spot (literally) on the horizon. A proposal by Westside Holdings in California has initiated the construction of the largest solar panel field in the country: the Westlands Solar Park in the San Joaquin Valley.
Westlands will reuse 30,000 acres of land contaminated with salt and other pollutants from years of irrigation and over-planting for a solar panel field capable of producing up to 5,000 megawatts of clean energy. As the largest current solar panel project underway, the field promises enough energy to power almost 4 million homes. By contrast, Spain currently claims the largest functioning solar panel field in the world, with a 60-megawatt capacity.
Phase one of the Westlands project will install solar panels on 9,000 acres of land leased by farmers to Westside Holdings and will generate 600-1,000 megawatts of renewable energy, to be transmitted on existing infrastructure. To complete the project, billions of private and public dollars will have to be invested in both construction and infrastructure development, ultimately creating thousands of jobs.
The project has captured the hearts and minds of developers and environmentalists alike both in California and nationally. Currently, the United States Environmental Protection Agency is investigating landfills and toxic waste sites as potential solar energy fields while the Arizona Bureau of Land Management is looking to its own landfills and abandoned mines as potential sites. Developers are looking to capitalize on the burgeoning renewable energy industry while environmentalists praise the re-use of “dead” land no longer suitable for farming. The fields in question were once used to grow tomatoes, wheat, rice, beans, alfalfa, cotton, stevia and blueberries. These crops are currently grown in various locations throughout the United States, in areas that aren’t as solar panel viable. The prospect of the field has bred an interesting alliance between farmers and environmental groups like the Sierra Club. Typically, the environmentally conscious are concerned about habitat destruction, negative effects on wildlife and pollution caused by development on otherwise pristine landscapes. However, since the fields have already been cultivated, farmed and depleted of natural resources, they are more than happy to lend them to green energy development.
Westlands farmers are also on board with green development. The San Joaquin Valley has been rationing its decreasing water supply for 18 years and farmers feel that they will likely receive more water once the supply is diverted from the Westland field.
Ultimately, the Westlands Solar Park will create jobs, provide California with a huge green energy source and reuse land no longer suitable for farming without disturbing existing ecosystems or landscapes. The project, if done correctly and successfully, will serve as a model for other large-scale renewable energy projects for years to come.