HANFORD – Due to friendly state policies pushing more renewable energy, a massive solar park proposed for Kings County appears ready for expansion.
That's according to Daniel Kim, a spokesman for Westlands Solar Park.
At around 20,000 acres, the proposed solar installation, the footprint of which hugs the western border of Kings County south of Naval Air Station Lemoore, would be among the largest in the U.S. if completed.
But it's been slow to develop.
The proposal first surfaced in 2013. Officials announced the first development — a two-megawatt installation to supply power to the city of Anaheim — barely two months ago.
The market for solar power wasn't very good from 2010 to 2015, according to Kim.
Kim said the utilities had mostly already lined up, or were in the process of lining up, enough clean energy sources to satisfy California's requirement that at least 33 percent of their energy portfolio had to come from renewables by 2020.
Kim said the project came into being because it made sense from a lot of other standpoints.
He pointed out that the project is on marginal land that Westlands Water District was looking to retire anyway in an effort to shift water to more productive parts of the massive Westside agricultural irrigation district in Fresno and Kings counties.
"We'd much rather be farming the land, but we're always looking for productive uses for retired farmland," said Johnny Amaral, Westlands deputy general manager for external affairs. "Solar, given the renewable energy mandate, seems to be a good use for it so far."
Kim said that the project is placed next to major electricity transmission lines that can handle the increased power the solar park would add to the grid.
At full 20,000 acre build-out, the facility would generate 2,400 megawatts of total generating capacity — enough solar power to support roughly 400,000 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Kim said the project is poised for expansion largely because of a shift in California law in 2015.
Utilities are now required to have 50 percent of the power they supply to customers come from renewable sources by 2030.
"We had to wait from a development perspective until the market was kind of able to reopen," Kim said. "The situation has changed immensely."
So what would be the effect on Kings County if Westlands Solar Park really takes off? What would be the local effects?
Kings County Supervisor Joe Neves, whose district includes some of the project's footprint, said it could supply an emergency supply of power locally in the event of an emergency.
"I like the ability to generate power within our boundaries and at least have power self-sufficiency in the event of a catastrophic occurrence such as an earthquake or terrorist attack," Neves said.
But to ensure a more direct local benefit, Neves said he's considering proposing that the Kings County Board of Supervisors impose what he called a "local hosting fee" on future solar development in the park.
Neves said it would be a per-megawatt surcharge that could be used to fund firefighting and law enforcement needs in the county.
"We are talking about it," he said.
Neves said he doesn't think imposing a local surcharge would discourage development of the solar project.
Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a member of People for Clean Air and Water of Kettleman City, said the prospect of more renewable energy capacity in the local area "is a good thing."
"As long as the drought continues, I think this is a good use of land that can't be farmed for lack of water or other reasons," she said.
The need for Westlands to retire thousands of drainage-impaired acres is one factor that makes the project unique and accounts for its large, concentrated size, according to Kim.
Other utility-scale solar projects are scattered around Kings County, but they are much smaller.
The only other projects on a similar scale are proposals on federally owned land in the Mojave Desert and in other desert regions of the southwestern U.S., according to Kim.
Neves said some of the energy from the project would help meet the energy demands of Kings' agricultural economy, and thereby help reduce local air pollution.
"Every time you can offset that carbon footprint with green energy, it's a good thing," he said.
In addition to California's renewable energy portfolio standards, Kim pointed toward the state's ambitious program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a positive factor enhancing the project's viability.
"That's going to require electrification of most if not all of the transportation system in California," he said.
Kim said the clean power could be combined with an ambitious program to build charging stations for electric cars in the Central Valley — if the Central Valley's transportation network could somehow be weaned off of petroleum on a large scale.
Kim expects the project to have 700 megawatts of generating capacity online by 2021.
"We expect to have more insight in the next two to three years," he said. "The marketing opportunities are gigantic."