Fallowed ag land is bright spot for solar farming

The Tulare County Planning Commission approves an additional 1,200 acres for solar panels projected to be online in 2026, expects to provide 500,000 Californians with energy

TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County’s largest economic sector is pivoting away from crops and turning towards harvesting energy from the sun.

The Tulare County Planning Commission approved a special use permit for an additional 1,200 acres of land for more solar farms near the unincorporated town of Ducor at their Sept. 28 meeting. This addition is to the Rexford 1 project that was approved in 2020, and will be known as the Rexford 2 project. It will bring in a 500 megawatt-alternating current (MW-AC) solar farm with 500 MW-AC of energy storage capacity. This additional solar farm will not only bring hundreds of jobs, but also when it is complete, it will bring energy to over 500,000 Californians. 

The company 8Minute has rebranded to Avantus, and is running the operation. California’s struggle with water is no secret, with Avantus leasing and not purchasing the land from farmers, the project will provide an alternative revenue income for farmers who are struggling with water. 

“The project is going to provide lease revenue to farmers who are facing mandatory water cuts, which I think is just a net positive,” Shenoy said. “This is a great synergistic use of the land and all the land is leases, not purchases, so the land is remaining with the families here in Tulare County, and we’re providing them the opportunity to diversify their revenue streams.”

According to the staff report, the Rexford 2 project site is in close proximity to the Rexford 1 project; two parcels are immediately adjacent. The second project is intended to share some of the facilities with the first project. Because Avantus is leasing land from farmers, they will end up with a variety of different types of land such as active and fallow agriculture land as well as some developed areas, like roads and agriculture infrastructure.

The addition of Rexford 2 now brings the total acreage for the whole Rexford project to almost 4,000 acres. The total wattage will be around 1,200 megawatts, 500 from Rexford 2 and 700 from Rexford 1. According to Venai Shenoy, senior director of development for Avantus, they do have more land than they need, but that is intentional. 

“The reason we do that is it provides development flexibility for us,” Shenoy said. “We can avoid wetlands, waterways and sensitive species. It allows us to also work with our farmers who, there’s certain parts of their land that they want to keep farming or that’s sentimental to them or a homestead, we can work around any landowner concerns and constraints.”

Rexford 2 will be beneficial to an array of individuals. It will provide 10 permanent jobs, 800 construction jobs at the construction peak, and the project has a labor agreement in place to be constructed with 100% union labor. Shenoy also said the project would invest up to $700 million of direct investment into Tulare County.

The project will also pay $8 million in developer agreement benefits to Tulare County over the project’s 35 to 40 year life according to Shenoy. As Avantus is leasing the land, they will be required to post a multimillion dollar preservation bond to ensure that there is a security in place to restore the land back to its original form. For the Rexford 2 project, Shenoy said the decommissioning bond will be around $18 million to $20 million.

According to Sandy Roper with the Tulare County Resource Management Agency, the conditional use permit (CUP) for the use of the land for the solar farm is for anywhere from 30 to 40 years. Once the CUP is close to the end of its useful life, there is always the option of re-applying. If not, the land will go back to its original use. This project will also emit up to 800,000 metric tons of CO2 annually.

At the planning commission meeting, two people gave public comments in support of this project from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Ron Junjk, business manager, financial secretary for IBEW, said they were able to dispatch 307 electrical workers on the slate project which was similar, but a smaller project than the Rexford project. It was only 300 megawatts of solar and 100 megawatts of battery storage. He said they are excited to be able to start the Rexford project and have the opportunity to provide as many locals  with jobs as possible. 

Due to supply chain issues and COVID-19, the Rexford 1 project has not yet broken ground. Shenoy said they plan to break ground in the second quarter of next year. After receiving approval on Sept. 28, Rexford 2 is expected to break ground in 2026 or 2027.

“That is going to start construction next year after many, many delays and challenges securing all the equipment,” Shenoy said. “We are very excited to be moving forward.”

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