Stretching 50 miles from southeastern California’s Salton Sea across the border with Mexico to the Gulf of California, the Imperial Valley is an area of unique desert beauty, one that lies almost entirely below sea level. The area is also somewhat rare in its combination of geothermal and solar energy resources.
The Imperial Valley is fast turning into a hotspot for both geothermal and solar energy development. On Tuesday, the city of El Centro’s Board of Supervisors gave the go-ahead to LS Power’s 275-megawatt (MW) Centinela Solar Energy Project. The solar project proposal has generated controversy in the small, still predominantly agricultural community, pitting local farmer-landowners against one another and either for or against LS Power’s proposal, according to a KYMA news report.
Renewable Energy vs. Agriculture
Land use and environmental impact were at the center of the debate. Some farmers objected to the project being approved, asserting that the project’s potential effects on the area’s agricultural resources, including air and water quality, were glossed over. They questioned approving another solar power project that doesn’t include any guarantees regarding local hiring, as well.
They also noted that approving the project, which is sited on private farmland, effectively does an end run around the Williamson Act. California’s landmark Williamson Act has effectively conserved the state’s agricultural land from property development and other alternative uses for more than 45 years.
Responding to these objections, local landowner Kay Bishop, on whose farmland the project will be built, told supervisors that private landowners have the right to do as they see fit on the land they own. LS Power Development says it will do everything it can to minimize the solar power farm’s effects on the environment, as well as hire as many local workers as possible.
Local job creation was certainly a strong factor working in the project’s favor, according to KYMA’s report. Members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have been training in El Centro exactly because of job prospects that will be on offer now that the Centinela project has been approved. Though only ten full-time operational and maintenance jobs will be created once the project is online, more than 300 construction jobs will be created while it’s being built.
Other supervisors pointed out that while farming remains a significant part of the Imperial Valley economy, it does not “keep the country afloat.” They noted that the region’s unemployment rate remains at a very high 20%-30%, which drives many of the younger generation out of the area in search of employment.
Imperial Valley county commissioners and members of the community are looking to renewable energy development to change that. When you consider the relative or comparative natural resource strengths of the area, the Imperial Valley has distinct advantages when it comes to solar and geothermal power. As an agricultural region, it could be considered marginal.
LSV also pointed out that little, in the way of crops, is being on grown on Ms. Bishop’s farmland at present. Commercial farming wouldn’t be possible at all in the Imperial Valley if it weren’t for irrigation water diverted from the Colorado River as it makes its way to Mexico and the Gulf of California.
In contrast, the Valley receives more than eight hours a day of sunshine in winter months. That’s the most sunlight of any place in the US. It’s also predominantly flat, the combination of which makes it a prime location for solar energy development.
There are five Imperial Valley public land-solar power project applications on file with US Bureau of Land Management as of a December 2011 update. They include AES’ 400-MW PV Imperial Valley Solar, SunPeak Solar’s 500-MW PV Superstition Solar 1, Pacific Solar Investments’ 450-MW Ogilby Solar parabolic trough project, Solar Reserve’s 250-MW Imperial Solar power tower, and San Diego Gas & Electric’s 20-MW PV Ocotillo Sol.
The county is the second-largest geothermal energy producer in the US, generating more than 500-MW of clean, renewable electricity. Geothermal resources surrounding the Salton Sea have the potential to produce more than 2,000-MW, according to the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp.
In September, Simbol Materials started drawing hydrothermal brines and other by-products of geothermal plants in the Salton Sea area as it commenced demonstration production of lithium carbonate, an electrolyte used in the manufacture of electric vehicles (EV). Simbol plans to expand production of lithium carbonate, as well as produce high-quality manganese and zinc at a planned, 500-metric ton production facility.
In addition to clean, renewable energy, Centinela and other solar and geothermal energy projects in the area also generate revenue for the local government, which is reinvested in building and maintaining infrastructure, social and educational services.
The Imperial Valley County Commission on Dec. 21 asked an ad hoc committee responsible for drafting solar power project fees for a Public Benefit Program similar to one adopted by Riverside County. The fee package consists of a mix of financial incentives and disincentives for solar power project developers to develop projects on various types of land, hire locally and contribute to community development.
I've been reporting and writing on a wide range of topics at the nexus of economics, technology, ecology/environment and society for some five years now. Whether in Asia-Pacific, Europe, the Americas, Africa or the Middle East, issues related to these broad topical areas pose tremendous opportunities, as well as challenges, and define the quality of our lives, as well as our relationship to the natural environment.