Nation’s largest solar farm approved for Tulare County

Rexford Solar Farm will place panels across 3,600 acres near Ducor to produce 700 megawatts of energy storage

DUCOR – Work to build the nation’s largest solar farm in Tulare County may begin by the end of this year.

At its Aug. 26 meeting, the Tulare County Planning Commission unanimously approved environmental documents for the Rexford Solar Farm in southeastern Tulare County. The project proposes to cover 3,600 acres near the town of Ducor with enough solar panels to produce up to 700 megawatts (mw) of energy in addition to storing 700 megawatts of energy, enough to provide 100% of the power needed for 180,000 homes each year. The solar arrays would eclipse the state’s biggest solar farm in San Luis Obispo—the 550mw Topaz facility built in 2011.

“We are becoming a green, self-sustaining county,” said Mike Washam, economic development director for the county’s Resource Management Agency (RMA). “Once this project is done, we will be producing more electrical energy than households throughout the county are consuming. We are an exporter rather than an importer.”

The solar farm is being proposed by a partnership that includes privately-held 8Minute Solar Energy of Los Angeles, which gets its name for the time it takes light from the sun to reach Earth, who owns several large utility-scale solar farms in the west including four in Kern County. The company said they have a portfolio of over 14,000 megawatts including the 260 MW Mount Signal Solar Farm in Imperial County. It was founded by Tom Buttgenbach and Martin Hermann in 2009. Last year the company signed a 25-year agreement to provide electricity to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Rexford Solar Farm’s electricity would be transmitted to the Southern California Edison (SCE) Vestal Substation via an up to 230 kilovolt (kV) overhead and/or underground gen-tie line. The historic substation connects the Big Creek hydro project in the Sierra above Fresno through the San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles. 8Minute is currently negotiating with SCE on a 35-year power purchase agreement.

The proposed transmission and/or collector lines would extend along existing roadway rights-of-way from various portions of the Project site (where substations are located) ultimately connecting to the SCE substation. The transmission and/or collector lines would be located along portions of Road 232, Avenue 56, Avenue 64, Road 224, Road 240, Avenue 32, Richgrove Drive, and Highway 65, or could possibly utilize additional nearby routings. The total length of the transmission and/or collector lines would be approximately 13 miles in length. The ground-mounted panels will be between 6 and 8 feet tall. A representative from 8Minute Solar Energy said the project should come online by the end of 2023 and start construction by end of 2020.

Growing energy

Environmental documents say the rural area is surrounded by agricultural uses including dry-land grain, irrigated crops, and grazing lands and scattered residential buildings. A representative said 8Minute targets rural properties with low yield and low water use to avoid taking prime agriculture land out of production. 8Minute said the project would reduce the state’s carbon dioxide output by 1.1 metric tons, more than the amount planted trees could draw out of the air.

“It kind of just sits there producing power quietly,” the representative said.

Sandy Roper, a planner/analyst with the county, said 35 of the properties are restricted by Williamson Act, a 1965 law allowing governments to offer reduced property taxes to agriculture landowners who agree to preserve their properties as farmland. The act also gives local governments the primary responsibility for implementing the program and the Board of Supervisors allows community utility facilities on Williamson Act land.

The Tulare County Farm Bureau did submit a letter reminding the board of the law’s intent to preserve farm land and not to create solar farms, but ultimately agreed the project would give landowners with sparse access to irrigation water options to make their lands profitable.

“We hope this is approved and affords the owners the opportunity to invest in farming in other more suitable regions,” Farm Bureau executive director Tricia Stever-Blattler wrote. “We remain vigilant to protect the Act’s original intent.”

Aaron Bock, assistant director of the county’s Resource Management Agency, said most of the farmland is not being irrigated and the project would drastically reduce the “water footprint” of the area which was hit hard during the historic drought from 2012-2017. Southern Tulare County already has a water deficit problem as evidenced by issues with land subsidence.

Reducing water use will be crucial for the value of the land in the area as the state of California begins implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Often referred to as “sigma,” the 2014 law requires local agencies to implement plans to become water neutral, meaning they put as much water back into the ground as they take out. The state requires that every area deemed an overdraft basin, such as the Kaweah, Kings and Tule River sub-basins in Tulare County, must figure out a way for the land within their boundaries to be water neutral in the next 20 years. Initial figures estimate the San Joaquin Valley may fallow as much as 1 million acres of farmland by 2040 due to the law.

Powering jobs

Washam said the project will also mean “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Washam said 8Minute will likely be hiring lots of workers from the south county area, who will not only be paid good wages but will likely spend those wages on food and products in local communities.

David Clark, director of growth for International Electrical Workers union, said there is a contract to hire local that is in the works and that they will be good wage and benefit jobs. He also said he will partner with local school districts to send as many vocational students as he can to the job site.

“Most solar jobs are 200 MW, this is a really big one,” Clark said. “Projects like these are vital to the economic recovery of Tulare County.”

Rexdale Reyo, a local iron worker, said he and others in the industry are looking forward to the work.

“It will provide good paying job and give us an opportunity to work closer to home and spend more time with our families,” Reyo said.

8Minute said the project will generate up to a $1.1 billion total investment, including over $200 million benefiting Tulare County directly. That is more than just jobs. That includes a site of sales tax agreement, so taxes on all purchases go to Tulare County, a development agreement of $1,000 per megawatt produced, renting equipment from local vendors and hotel stays and meals for project planners from out of the area, as 8Minute is based in Los Angeles.

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