Events & Media

Where to Place Utility-Scale Solar in California?
In answering, the state seeks input from a Bren School Master's Group Project

Wildlight Group Project members (from right): Sam Young, Andrew Gwin, Dustin Pearce, Jane Cowan, Graham Wesolowski, and faculty advisor Mark Buntaine.

Sacramento, CA — Earlier this summer, two Bren School master’s students stood in California Governor Jerry Brown’s office and spoke to a large crowd of state-agency representatives, farmers, solar companies, NGO representatives, and others interested in solar power, conservation, and California’s energy future.

The Bren students presented findings from “Wildlight,” their Master’s Group Project, for which they had created a spatial model identifying compatible areas for utility-scale solar development in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Ramping up solar-power generation is important in meeting the state’s renewable portfolio standard that calls for renewable energy to make up 33 percent of California’s total energy portfolio by 2020. This transition toward clean energy will become even more pressing when Governor Brown’s goal of 50% renewable generation by 2030 is written into law this year.

How did Dustin Pearce (MESM 2015), who was born in the tiny Central Valley town of Corcoran (pop. 12,000) end up heading to Sacramento with his project colleague Sam Young (MESM 2015) to present their Group Project in the halls of government?

Egrets in San Joaquin Valley
Protecting habitat and wildlife, like these great egrets, is a key factor in planning utility-scale solar in the San Joaquin Valley.

Pearce explains that while the Wildlight team, including Jane Cowan, Andrew Gwin, and Graham Wesolowski (all MESM 2015) was working on the project, the California Office of Planning and Research (OPR) was preparing to launch a parallel effort to identify “areas of least-conflict” for utility-scale solar development. That process, which began this past June, relies heavily on stakeholder values and analyses to identify such areas. The Bren students interacted extensively with stakeholders, too (and many of them were in the room in Sacramento), but in working for their Group Project client, Defenders of Wildlife, they took a modeling approach similar to previous analyses done by Bren School professor and National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) director, Frank Davis. The method had been used in California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), a landscape-scale planning process that addressed energy development and species conservation across 22 million acres. The similarities between the DRECP process and the Wildlight team’s process is what drew so much interest from the OPR planning team and ultimately led Pearce and Young into the governor’s office for the presentation.

They spoke in a room filled with 70 to 80 high-level stakeholders, including executive directors and other senior officials from The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, the California Native Plant Society, The Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and more. Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, and several solar-power developers also sent representatives, who joined county officials from the San Joaquin Valley, the director of the California State Farm Bureau, local farm bureau representatives, and large farmers from the district that Wildlight had identified as a good location for utility-scale solar.

When the students were introduced as the “all-star team from Bren,” Pearce recalls, “I thought to myself, The pressure’s on right now.

But they were confident because, as he recalls, “They were exactly the same stakeholders we had consulted for our project.”

Bren students learn that for any Group Project, and in solving problems as environmental professionals, it is critical to interact with stakeholders in order to understand their values and concerns and avoid cultural or historical blind spots while ensuring that any solution fits the reality on the ground. For Pearce, engaging with stakeholders for the Wildlight project had a particularly personal resonance.

“My town is big into farming,” he says. “We’ve seen solar happening there, and a lot of people have rooftop solar. It’s something the community and the culture can accept, but it has to be done in the right way and include their interests. That’s why we have all the stakeholders involved.

“Agriculture is not just about revenue,” he continues. “It’s a cultural artifact that people identify with, and not to have included the agricultural community would have been a disservice to them and to the process. By incorporating their values, we can avoid placing big solar in a contested area and instead, make something that’s a win-win-win. It’s a conservation win by avoiding impacts to habitat and wildlife. It’s a win for agriculture, because with many areas in the valley undergoing fallowing related to saline soils, chemical impairment, or most notably now, water restrictions, solar allows farmers to continue to make money from their land even when it is removed permanently from agricultural production. And it’s a win for energy, because it puts more renewables into the state’s portfolio.”

The presentation was a success.

“We were kind of worried that the agricultural community might have an issue with our labeling some farm lands as unfavorable for agriculture and suitable for solar development,” Pearce explains. “But for the most part, they agreed with us. And it was good that I’m from there and that we had reached out to the agricultural community within the San Joaquin Valley previously, because many people in the room already knew our project.

“The fact that I’m from there has led to much better relations with the people involved,” he adds. “It’s something that, initially, I never would have thought I’d get into. But it’s a perfect alignment of what I’ve been working toward. I got my undergraduate degree in conservation, I love GIS work, and I’m working to protect farmland, something that’s valuable for my family.”

The Sacramento presentation was only the beginning of Wildlight’s impact. In the following weeks, they had one-on-one meetings with officials at various agencies interested in using their model and others like it to support planning in California. And what was supposed to be a short meeting with the Wildlife Conservation Board, part of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, turned into a two-hour exchange. “There has been lots of excitement about what we’re doing and its application,” Pearce says.

In the wake of all that activity, Pearce was contracted by OPR planners to remain at the Bren School as a visiting researcher for several months after graduating, with the goal of “putting some wheels on this and getting it adjusted and implemented so that state agencies and stakeholders can use it,” Pearce says, adding, “We’re super-excited about being able to have an impact”

The final decision on “least-conflict” lands will be determined by the stakeholder-driven planning process, but the outcome may have broader impacts, perhaps changing how environmental conservation, energy planning, and agricultural preservation are accomplished collaboratively in California going forward.

In the offices of Gov. Jerry Brown, Bren students Sam Young (left) and Dustin Pearce (both MESM 2015) present their Group Project to a room full of high-level stakeholders interested in solar energy, conservation, and California's energy future.