First, a few facts that may appear unrelated. Nissan Motor Company recently reported that Japan has 40,000 public and private charging points for plug-in cars compared to 34,000 gas stations. Recall that Nissan’s electric vehicle – the Leaf – is the world’s top selling EV. The electrification of automobiles is also closely tied to the deployment of solar technology. Estimates are that 39 percent of California plug-in car owners have solar PV at their residences.
Now, let’s make the farming connection. California produces 52 percent of the nation’s fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables. At the heart of drought-stricken California agriculture is the San Joaquin Valley. The Valley is one of the world’s most vital and productive farming areas. To make vegetables grow, farmers in the San Joaquin Valley have to pump ground water containing high levels of salt. Once the salt build-up reaches a certain point, the soils become toxic and farming is over.
“I cannot farm myself out of this water problem,” said Mark Shannon, a San Joaquin farmer who in 2010 began working with large solarfarm developers to take over the farmland. Farmers and officials of the Westlands Water District (in the San Joaquin Valley) have agreed to provide 30,000 acres of land for solar projects. Westlands Water District is the largest agricultural water district in the U.S. and provides water to 600,000 acres. Over the past 18 years, some 100,000 acres of farmland have been taken out of agricultural production due to water issues.
The trend, while in its infancy, is real. As farmland is fallowed for pollution and/or lack of sufficient water, the land becomes a candidate for solar energy projects. So if California begins to wane as the vegetable basket of America, it may well drive up prices – making home gardening increasingly more economically viable. There is little question that large-scale farming cannot be indefinitely sustained – a fallout which may put pressure on increasing small scale production – time will tell.
One thing we do know is that American agriculture is becoming more water-challenged. Demands for water for hydroelectric production and fossil fuels extraction/processing are competing with water for food. Solar energy (or other sustainable energy) aids in minimizing climate change and in relinquishing water used in energy generation back to farming – and even powering a growing fleet of automobiles.
Solar will also play a role in powering desalinization of ocean water. With 70 percent of Americans living within 100 miles of a coast, the food, water and energy landscape of the future may look quite different than the landscape of today. The point being is that options for a future do exist.