Solar energy within the Central Valley, CA: Current practices and potential
Utility-scale solar energy (USSE, ≥ 1 megawatt [MW]) systems are rapidly being deployed in the Central Valley of California, generating clean electricity and new job opportunities. Utility-scale solar energy systems require substantial quantities of land or space, often prompting an evaluation of environmental impacts and trade-offs when selecting their placement. Utilizing salt-contaminated agricultural land (as the sodium absorption and electrical conductivity values are unsuitably high), unsuitable for food production, and lands within the built environment (developed), can serve as a co-benefit opportunity when reclamation of these lands for USSE development is prioritized. In this study, we quantify the theoretical and generation-based solar energy potential for the Central Valley according to land-cover type, crop type, and for salt-contaminated lands. Further, we utilize the Carnegie Energy and Environmental Compatibility (CEEC) model to identify and prioritize solar energy, integrating environmental resource opportunities and constraints most relevant to the Central Valley. We use the CEEC model to generate a value-based environmental compatibility output for the Central Valley.
The Central Valley extends across nearly 60,000 km2 of California with the potential of generating 21,800 - 30,300 TWh y-1 and 41,600 TWh y-1 of solar energy for photovoltaic (PV) and concentrating solar power (CSP), respectively. Pasture, hay, and cultivated crops comprise over half of the Central Valley, much of which is considered prime agriculture or of statewide or local importance for farming (28,200 km2). Together, approximately one-third of this region is salt-contaminated (16%) or developed (11%). This confers a generation-based potential of 5713 - 7891 TWh y-1 and 2770 TWh y-1 for PV and CSP, respectively. As energy, food, and land are inextricably linked, our study shows how land favorable for renewable energy systems can be used more effectively in places where land is premium.