Proposal would open state ag lands to solar farms

April 4, 2008

Pacific Business News (Honolulu) by Nanea Kalani

Hawaii could see a surge of new solar energy farms under a proposed measure that would open up thousands of acres of state agricultural-zoned land for such facilities.

House Bill 2502 would permit solar energy facilities on state agricultural land that is unsuited for either farming or livestock grazing. Wind farms and the growing of crops for biofuel already are allowed on such land.

The measure, introduced by state Rep. Hermina Morita, D-Kapaa-Hanalei, has gained strong support from solar energy firms and private land developers because it would reduce the number of land-use permits needed from county agencies for building and operating solar farms.

Industrial-size Facilities

Solar facilities can include large-scale photovoltaics, which directly convert sunlight into electricity, or solar collectors, which transfer heat energy to electric power and also can store the energy for use during nondaylight hours.

Unlike smaller residential systems, these types of projects typically sit on land ranging in size from one acre to thousands of acres. The generated power can be sold to a utility or used to power buildings and homes.

The bill, which passed through the Senate Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Committee last week, specifies lands with D or E soil productivity ratings. Approximately 70 percent of the state’s 1.3 million acres of farmlands — about 910,000 acres — have these soil classifications.

Honolulu solar technology firm Sopogy Inc. testified in support of the measure and sees potential for expanding its solar projects.

“This would open a new market for solar farming in Hawaii, where a lot of the abandoned sugar cane lands could be used for solar farms,” said Sopogy President Darren Kimura. “We would definitely be looking at these lands as we try to bring as much solar-generated power to Hawaii as possible.”

Sopogy has a 1-megawatt solar farm at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority on the Big Island, as well as a 50-kilowatt plant in Idaho. Both farms use Sopogy’s proprietary solar collectors, which concentrate the sun’s power to heat mineral oil, which is then run through a turbine to generate electricity.

On Oahu, the company plans to build a 50-acre, 10-megawatt solar farm that could generate enough electricity to power about 30,000 homes. The company has not revealed the site for the planned project, but says it expects the systems to be operational by late next year.

Meanwhile, on Maui, developer Dowling Co. expects the passing of HB 2502 will help speed its efforts to build a 40-50-acre solar farm on the Makena property it bought last year, which includes the Maui Prince Hotel and two golf courses.

“We have set the very ambitious goal of developing a net-zero-energy community,” Jennifer Stites, Dowling Co.’s green development manager, wrote in supporting testimony.

Stites said the proposed solar farm would be on land with E-classified soil.

“They are not suitable for the cultivation of crops and, because of the limited acreage, they are not suitable for grazing or pasture lands,” Stites wrote. “If we do not use this land for a solar farm, it will remain barren and unproductive.”

Developer Castle & Cooke Hawaii also wants to use 10 acres of agricultural lands on Lanai for a 1.5-megawatt solar farm, saying the bill’s passage is “essential to our efforts.”

“Castle & Cooke’s proposed solar energy facility will be placed on land that has been fallow for more than 20 years,” wrote Tim Hill, an executive vice president and head of the company’s renewable energy programs on Lanai. “[The] facilities will not displace any farmers or create a competitive situation for natural resources.”

Competition for ranchers

The Maui County Farm Bureau expressed some concern about the legislation, noting potential competition for the lands from solar facility operators.

“These nonagricultural uses are able to pass on their costs to customers [so] they will be willing to pay a higher price for the lands than farmers or ranchers,” wrote Warren Watanabe, the organization’s executive director.

Morita thinks the best scenario would be one where the renewable energy facility is secondary to agricultural activities.

“By still having the land available for agricultural use, it could benefit the farmers by giving them revenues from leasing their land for renewable energy uses,” she said.

The state Department of Agriculture shares a similar view and has asked lawmakers to consider adding to the bill: “Where solar energy facility is compatible with agricultural uses and activities on the parcel and adjacent parcels.”

Supporters of the bill say the way solar farms are configured often allows for livestock grazing and low-rising crop production. | 955-8001

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