Expanding civilization within the desert has always been a precarious proposition. So it is with the new solar power projects taking place in the Antelope Valley. The issue this time is determining how to deal with the natural environment which can provide numerous obstacles to progress.
There has been considerable uproar lately regarding the constant dust storms that besiege the northern-most portion of the Mojave Desert where a number of high-tech green energy projects are being built. Dust and solar plates do not mix because build-up on the glass panels will diminish energy output. This becomes a problem because solar panels are now mandatory in Lancaster in newly constructed homes.
Last week, an agreement was reached between solar power developers here and in Kern County regarding sand storms (or “haboobs”) and their affect on delicate machinery.
The agreement includes efforts by developers to put in preventative measures that will keep solar panels operating efficiently even in dust storms and inclement weather. Last spring, Los Angeles County halted work on the nearly-complete Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One project because of violent dust storms and, according to some residents, the possible spread of Valley Fever, an malady often caused by blowing microscopic fragments of rodent and bird feces. This dust can be kicked up during the building of solar facilities or any construction.
During a recent meeting of the Rosamond Municipal Advisory Council, representatives from the Kern County planning department and from the Kern County Board of Supervisors admitted to residents that they have experienced the same difficulties with their solar projects and told attendees that, essentially, they’d have to be resigned to the elements.
“The sites where solar is being built are all different, the dust issues are different and the solutions are different,” said Kern County Supervisor Zack Scrivner. “But the dust caused by the severe wind event we had over the Memorial Day weekend was not because of the solar. This is the desert. When you have 70-mph winds, you are going to have dust.”
And not just dust. Earlier this week, a violent hail storm swept through Lancaster along Highway 14. With golf-ball-sized hail pelting solar installations, there is the possibility of regular damage to these multimillion-dollar installations which local officials tout as the energy source of the future.
The health concern about Valley Fever was further explained by recent figures released by the Centers for Disease Control which show an increased incidence of the potentially lethal, desert-specific, fungal respiratory disease in the Central Valley, just north of the Antelope Valley. Despite these concerns, it would appear solar power in the Antelope Valley will play a vital role in region’s economic future.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris set three years ago a “net zero” power goal for his city: that is, to harness energy from the sun and become 100 percent power-independent. So far Lancaster is halfway there, producing the most solar power per resident in the state. All future home construction in Lancaster will include solar panels, as will the new businesses being built locally (i.e., Kaiser Permanente’s expansion in Lancaster, as well as the new City of Hope facility).
“We would be the deepest well if you were to imagine that was oil,” Parris explained to CBS News recently, referring to the town’s abundance of sun. The high desert reportedly has a minimum of 300 days of sunny weather annually. “And what is oil but power? And what is solar but power?” asked Parris who said residents have quickly realized the benefits of solar power which is much more energy efficient than coal-fired plants, helps reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere and could result in drastic reductions in power bills. “We intend to figure out a way to use it (sunlight) more efficiently than anywhere else in the world,” Parris said.
“We will be net zero (in use of coal-powered energy) within the next three years,” Parris continued. “The goal is eventually this city becomes independent of the grid.” The new law in Lancaster requiring solar panel installation in every single family home built will be implemented next year.
Although Lancaster leases the solar installations, Lancaster Deputy City Manager Jason Caudle said the cost (of energy) is minimal compared to the benefits. “We pay 10 cents per kilowatt hour,” Caudle said. “We were getting charged by the utility companies about 18 cents per kilowatt hour. So we save the difference.” Caudle has overseen the installation of more than 6,000 panels on city buildings.
The dust problem in Kern County was addressed by Kern planning department director Lorelei Oviatt who said it is important to distinguish between mitigations and levying fines against developers. “This (haboobs) is a temporary construction issue,” Oviatt explained. “In the finished projects, they will have done the things their permits require and there will be no dust.” Oviatt admitted that mistakes were made in Kern County, a reason why officials have implemented new practices during construction to help alleviate the damages of naturally-occuring weather events.
San Francisco-based Recurrent Energy is building 55-megawatt plants at four sites in the Antelope Valley, and has a fifth project in early development. SunPower is developing its 579-megawatt facility spread across two sites.
Antelope Valley Solar Ranch One, built by Chicago’s Exelon Inc., is one of the nation’s largest solar facilities, producing 230 megawatts. Lancaster officials have said at least 200 of the 350 people working on the project will be hired full time upon completion. First Solar, which is providing the engineering, procurement and construction services for Exelon, said in 2012 that the Solar Ranch facility will “… produce enough electricity to meet the annual energy needs of about 75,000 average homes” (roughly the equivalent of removing 30,000 vehicles from the road) in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Jim Woodruff, vice president of First Solar, said the Antelope Valley is one of the world’s most desirable locales for solar power. Because the land is “previously disturbed agricultural land” (meaning it has already been graded and developed), “there are no threatened or endangered species on the site, and the project will not use water for electricity operation,” Woodruff said.
California Gov. Jerry Brown wants the state to remain on track to obtain a third of its power from renewable energy by 2020. “We can’t just rely on sunlight,” Brown told the Intersolar conference in San Francisco last month. “We’ve got to bottle sunlight.” According to an Aug. 12 Reuters article, California’s push to store unused solar power comes as renewable energy use moves toward representing a mandated one-third of the state’s electricity supply by 2020. The proposal has resulted in a technology race that has already attracted venture capitalists like Peter Thiel and Vinod Khosla, large-scale battery manufacturers such as LG Chem, and establishment forces like General Electric Co. and Microsoft Corp founder Bill Gates. Even Warren Buffet has gotten into the act locally, building his BYD (Build Your Dreams) electric bus plant in Lancaster.
The state’s aggressive renewables target has forced the issue of storage: Brown wants storage of up to 1.3 gigawatts by 2020. That is reportedly enough storage capacity for traditional solar power plants to service more than 1 million homes. Solar power storage is costly when compared to building new gas plants, and many storage projects were established with the help of stimulus funds which have since run dry. That means utility customers many end up footing the bill, as well as bearing the risks that unproven storage technologies will not deliver on their promise.
“The ratepayers would be on the hook,” said Farzad Ghazzagh, who is analyzing a solar storage proposal for the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an arm of the California Utilities Commission. Ghazzagh said it is possible that the cost could range between $1 billion to $3 billion annually to install and maintain such a large amount of storage.
Some proponents of solar power argue that ratepayers will benefit because storage enables utilities to avoid building more power plants to meet peak demand, simply by providing extra power for a few hours a day. The Electric Power Research Institute found in a report for California’s grid regulator this summer that the large cost of storage can be economically feasible—provided all benefits are considered.
“We all agree, as we sit here today, storage is uneconomic,” said Tom Werner, CEO of SunPower Corp, at a San Francisco meeting of utility executives this month. “But if you go out five years, I wouldn’t bet against it.”
The solar storage business has had its share of difficulties as it has struggled to bring costs down and prove technologies. Battery maker A123 Systems of Waltham, Mass., and flywheel maker Beacon Power LLC, also of Massachusetts, were among the most high-profile corporations to file for bankruptcy after receiving generous support from the United States Department of Energy.
Solar storage is seen as energy’s “holy grail” because of the efficiency it brings to any grid. For example, California has 51 gigawatts of peak capacity to handle heat that boosts air-conditioning demand, even if only two-thirds of that is needed for most of the year. But without more government money, utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego’s Sempra Energy and their customers will shoulder much of the upfront costs.
Says entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors, regarding solar power and storage: “I am increasingly confident that there will be major breakthroughs in electricity storage tech.”