Southern California deserts

California's Emerging Solar Desert

The desert region of Southern California could become one of the largest concentrations of solar projects in the world if proposals move forward to the action stage.

As a result, the Palm Springs Desert Sun - where I worked as a reporter in the mid-1980s - published an impressive set of stories on the pros and cons of the proposals. Below are links to the stories - and to a map detailing the location and scope of each project, along with employment and tax revenue estimates.

It should be noted that the San Joaquin Valley, a resource-rich region from Stockton to the foot of the Grapevine, also is considered prime territory for solar-generating projects. Like the desert, it has lots of sun and land, but the west side of the Valley, where much of the former farmland lies fallow, doesn't have the same ecological and environmental concerns, and is more accessible to the grid.

Whereas, the arid regions of eastern Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties could become a Solar Desert, the San Joaquin Valley has the potential to become known as Solar Valley.

Ivanpah solar project image by

Huge Solar Project Breaks Ground

We've written here and here about the potential for the deserts of Southern California to become Solar Central. Well, the first major project breaks ground today in the desolation of eastern San Bernardino County, only a few miles from Nevada.

If completed, the Ivanpah project and its 346,000 mirrors could generate enough power for 140,000 houses.

The process thus far hasn't always been smooth - there were concerns over the impact on the desert tortoise and the use of federal subsidies, according to this Los Angeles Times account - but the installation could be the first of many that brings thousands of badly needed construction jobs to California.

That alone would be enough to make California a leader in the solar industry, but efforts are also under way to make the west side of the San Joaquin Valley a hub for solar as well.
(photo by greentechmedia)

Solar Proposals Could Generate 8,000 Construction Jobs

The experts aren't kidding when they say the deserts of Southern California could be one of the largest solar-energy sites in the world.

Nine large-scale solar thermal projects that have or are to go before the California Energy Commission by year's end could produce 4,100 megawatts of power (by some estimates, enough to accommodate 4.1 million homes) and 8,000 construction and 1,000 operational jobs, state officials said.

They would also boost California's renewable energy efforts, and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. The state wants utilities to have renewables produce 33% of their power by 2033.

"These approved solar projects continue to demonstrate the importance of harnessing the power of the sun for clean, renewable energy for California's communities," Energy Commission Chairman Karen Douglas said in a prepared statement.

Some of the solar projects stem from a partnership between California and the Department of the Interior (DOI). In October 2009, California was the first state to sign a memo of understanding with the DOI to develop long-term renewable energy plans through state and federal permitting processes that can receive 30% federal tax credits under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

On Sept. 29, two of the largest plants - totaling almost 1,000 megawatts in Riverside and Imperial counties - were licensed. They had to be approved before Dec. 31 to qualify for federal funds.

The Riverside County development would use parabolic trough technology, where parabolic mirrors are used to heat a transfer fluid which is then used to generate steam. Electricity is produced from the steam expanding through steam turbine generators.

Its counterpart in Imperial County would use solar dish Stirling systems, or "SunCatchers", consisting of a solar receiver heat exchanger and a closed-cycle, high efficiency engine designed to convert solar power to rotary power, then driving an electrical generator to produce electricity.

Not to be outdone, the sun-drenched Central Valley of California also is bursting with solar-energy proposals. Supporters say double-digit unemployment, ample sun resources, acres of out-of-production farmland and proximity to the power grid help make the region ideal for an emerging solar industry.

The proposals come at a time when the solar market in some parts of the United States is expanding, but also facing criticism that solar is too expensive. In California, out-of-state oil companies are financing Prop 23 which, if approved, would suspend the state's landmark global warming law.

Still, photovoltaic installations are up 55% from 2009, and on track to reach a record in 2010, according to a new report by Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research.

California and New Jersey were the largest state markets in the first half of the year. The second half could be even stronger. "Many projects will rush to commence construction in order to meet eligibility deadlines for the cash grant program, and some of these will ultimately be connected to the grid within the year," according to the report.

More than 120,000 systems were connected to the grid in the United States through June, including 100,000 residential systems. Arizona, California, Colorado, New Jersey and New York each installed more than 1,000 systems in the first six months of 2010.

California also has attracted billions in clean technology investment capital. In the first half of 2010, it received 40% of total global investment. Since 2006, it has received $11.6 billion, or 24% of the total, according to "2010 California Green Innovation Index" put out by a nonprofit research group, Next 10.

However, not all is rosy. In addition to the threat posed by Prop. 23, which goes before voters next month, some green -energy companies are electing to leave California or setting up operations in other states or countries, according to this report by Joseph Vranich, an Irvine-based relocation adviser.

(Photo by