The New Agriculture: From Food Farms to Solar Farms

69 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2019 Last revised: 28 Oct 2019

See all articles by Jessica Owley

Jessica Owley

University of Miami - School of Law

Amy Morris

UC Santa Cruz

Date Written: June 3, 2019


Across the United States, government agencies and energy developers are looking to agricultural land for development of renewable energy. One attraction of agricultural lands is that they are already relatively ecologically impaired compared with the previous solar development sites in the California and Arizona desert that have been a major source of concern for many environmental groups — and subject to expensive mitigation requirements under the Endangered Species Act. Renewable energy development pressures are accelerating the existing loss of agricultural land, heightening concerns about food security and the economic viability of agricultural communities. California farmland is at the center of this conflict. Suburban sprawl in California already leads to conversion of nearly 40,000 acres of agricultural land a year.

Now, a new competitor has entered the scene: solar energy facilities. Both users compete for water, which is only becoming scarcer in the face of climate change and periodic drought. The pressures on California’s agricultural land have long inspired the state legislature and local governments to enact various measures to protect farmland and promote the business of agriculture. We examine the ways California’s Williamson Act (which provides tax benefits for agricultural land) and the California Environmental Quality Act (the state’s environmental review statute) have proven and not proven to be obstacles to taking agricultural land out of crop production and putting it into solar energy production. We demonstrate that current laws are neither protecting prime agricultural lands nor adequately creating conditions for evaluating the tradeoffs and alternatives when farmland — or ecologically sensitive habitat — is used for large-scale renewable energy development.

Keywords: Solar, Agriculture, Photovoltaic, Williamson Act, CEQA, Soils

Suggested Citation

Owley, Jessica and Morris, Amy, The New Agriculture: From Food Farms to Solar Farms (June 3, 2019). Columbia Journal of Environmental Law Vol. 44, No. 2 (2019), University of Miami Legal Studies Research Paper, Available at SSRN:

Jessica Owley (Contact Author)

University of Miami - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 248087
Coral Gables, FL 33146
United States

Amy Morris

UC Santa Cruz ( email )

1156 High Street
Santa Cruz, CA 95064
United States

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