Companies squeezing power from sun,
deserts in Southern California
Dec 2, 2007 - San Francisco Chronicle
Vincent Signorotti's power plant sits
on the edge of the Salton Sea, surrounded by irrigated
cropland in the middle of a scorched desert.
Beyond the lake, beyond the patch of
green fields, the desert seems empty. But it holds
all the energy Signorotti's plant will ever need -energy
that could play a key role in California's fight against
The plant runs on hot water, pumped
from deep underground and flashed into steam to turn
turbines. With 10 generators near the lakeshore, the
facility produces enough electricity for 255,000 homes,
and the company that owns it wants to expand. Other
companies are drilling nearby, hoping to build their
own geothermal plants.
"We're very lucky," said Signorotti,
a vice president with CalEnergy Operating Corp., as
he considered all the energy beneath his feet. "This
is really the crown jewel of undeveloped renewable
A renewable-energy boom is under way
in the Southern California desert. The region's open,
empty spaces have room for big projects - such as
vast solar energy farms - that can generate energy
on a grand scale while producing few, if any, greenhouse
gases. Dozens of new solar and geothermal generating
stations have been proposed, from Lancaster to the
Arizona and Mexico borders. They won't be cheap to
build, possibly raising the costs Californians pay
for power. But with the state's utilities scrambling
to find more renewable energy, the projects are moving
Few places in the country have better
potential. Low-level volcanic activity near the Salton
Sea - a large, salty lake in Imperial County - can
feed geothermal plants running 24 hours a day, seven
days a week. And with its cloudless skies and bone-dry
air, the desert has ideal conditions for solar plants.
"You're creating all this power without
harming the environment," said Avi Brenmiller with
Solel Solar Systems, which plans to build a giant
solar facility in the Mojave with backing from Pacific
Gas and Electric Co. "This can be like the next oil
supply for California."
The desert energy boom won't end California's
reliance on fossil fuel power plants. But the amount
of electricity involved is substantial.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management,
which controls immense swaths of the desert, has received
land-use requests for 34 solar plants, each of them
capable of generating as much electricity as a traditional
power plant burning natural gas. It's unlikely that
all will get built, but if they were, they would generate
enough power to light 18 million homes.
California utilities have already announced
their financial support for a few of the projects.
State law now forces the utilities to increase the
amount of renewable power they use. The utilities
must ensure that 20 percent of the power they sell
by the end of 2010 comes from renewable resources.
As a result, they are willing to fund big, expensive
projects that investors in many states probably wouldn't
The power does come at a price.
Electricity from renewable resources
often costs more than power generated by fossil fuels.
When considered over the lifespan of the facilities,
the cost of generating electricity with a big solar
installation is nearly three times the cost of using
a natural gas plant, according to the California Energy
Commission. Geothermal energy, in contrast, costs
a little less than power from natural gas plants,
Californians could see their electricity
bills increase as utilities back large renewable projects.
"Some of them are quite expensive,"
said Peter Darbee, PG&E's chief executive officer.
He added, however, that as more renewable
facilities are built, the cost of the solar reflectors
or wind turbines they use should come down. That could
keep the price consumers pay from soaring.
"Manufacturers are gearing up to meet
this worldwide demand, and their volumes are increasing,"
Darbee said. "So that (increase) will be, in part,
The big facilities planned for the desert
also pose environmental issues.
Solar installations, for example, can
blanket hundreds of acres, rendering the land useless
for native plants and animals. And pitched battles
have been fought over proposed transmission lines
that would bring electricity from the desert to energy-hungry
cities on the coast.
But some environmentalists see little
choice. If California hopes to meet its goal of reducing
the greenhouse gas emissions that come from fossil
fuel power plants, it will need more than rooftop
"We need renewables at this scale, urgently,"
said Ralph Cavanagh, director of the Natural Resources
Defense Council's energy program.
By his calculation, the same area occupied
by Edwards Air Force Base near Lancaster (Los Angeles
County) could generate roughly 17 percent of the state's
electricity supply if used for solar farms. "They're
a very good idea for California," Cavanagh said. "They're
also a really good idea for the world. This is one
of the scalable solutions that can make a big difference."
The Southern California desert already
has a history in renewable energy.
Giant windmills fill the San Gorgonio
Pass just west of Palm Springs, immense white blades
wheeling slowly over the moonscape along Interstate
10. To the north and west, on the other side of the
San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains, large solar
farms first appeared in the 1980s.
Not all the area's renewable-energy
efforts have been successful. Several solar projects
were abandoned in 1992 when the company behind them
went bankrupt. Years of low energy prices dried up
But some early efforts worked, and still
Row upon row of curved glass mirrors
fill a flat, treeless plain in northern San Bernardino
County. As the sun arcs overhead, the mirrors follow,
keeping the light focused on long tubes running down
each row. A synthetic fluid flowing through the tubes
absorbs heat from the concentrated sunlight, the liquid's
temperature rising to 730 degrees. That heat is then
used to turn water to steam, which powers a turbine
and generates electricity.
The facility has been here since 1986.
Along with a companion solar farm several miles to
the east, it produces about 310 megawatts of power,
with each megawatt capable of lighting about 750 homes.
A high-voltage transmission line marches south from
the plant, carrying the power to the booming San Bernardino
"The whole reason we're here is the
sunshine," said Harvey Stephens, the plant's production
manager for FPL Energy. "We farm the sky as the sun
goes by every day."
The plant - called Solar Energy Generating
System or "Segs" - sits nearly 2,500 feet above sea
level, with mountains shielding it from coastal fog
and urban smog. Cloudy days are rare and rain is scarce.
Even in winter months, the sunlight stays steady and
That's a magnet for solar developers.
America's southwestern desert, stretching from California
to Texas, receives more solar radiation per square
foot on average than any other part of the country,
according to federal estimates. And while the population
in California's Mojave Desert is growing, the area
still has the vast stretches of empty land that developers
"At the end of the day, if you want
clean power, you have to put those plants someplace,"
said Solel's Brenmiller. "And this is an ideal place."
The California government, eager to
boost renewable energy, has so far been receptive
to the idea, solar developers say.
"The state government wants all the
solar it can get," said Ryan O'Keefe, FPL Energy's
executive director of development. The company is
upgrading its equipment at Segs with new fluid-filled
tubes and wants to build more solar thermal projects
in California, possibly two or three generating "several
"Nobody wants to be seen as the guy
holding this stuff up," he said.
While solar developers scout locations
in the high desert, geothermal companies study the
low desert near the Salton Sea.
They are drawn by the region's geology.
The San Andreas Fault fractures into a jigsaw of subterranean
cracks beneath the sea's southern end, allowing the
earth's heat to seep up and push underground water
temperatures past 550 degrees. Small mud volcanoes
east of the sea spit gray ooze onto the parched land
and hiss with the sound of escaping gas.
Geothermal plants have been selling
electricity here since the 1980s, producing a total
of more than 500 megawatts. But just as with solar
energy, interest in the technology ebbed when energy
Now, companies are scouring the barren
landscape for places where they can drill wells and
build plants. It's a pursuit much like prospecting
for oil, just with a different underground resource
About 5 miles from the sea's western
shore, a towering drill rig bores into the dry, powdery
earth. Three flags wave from the rigging - California's,
the United States' and Iceland's.
Iceland America Energy plans to build
a 49-megawatt power plant here in the next three years.
Water temperatures beneath this site aren't as high
as they are on the other side of the sea - around
350 degrees. But that's still hot enough to generate
electricity. The company has already signed an agreement
to sell the energy to PG&E. A Santa Rosa firm, ThermaSource,
handles the drilling.
It's no accident that a company with
its roots in Iceland would try to develop geothermal
power. The volcanic island generates roughly 19 percent
of its electricity from geothermal plants and uses
the earth's energy to heat 90 percent of its homes,
according to the Icelandic National Energy Authority.
"We're very much aware of the benefits
of geothermal, and the possibilities," said Magnus
Johannesson, Iceland America's chief executive officer.
"That is not yet the case in America, and we need
to change that."
The company, based in Los Angeles, formed
in 2004, and its shareholders include several Icelandic
energy companies. Although the company looked elsewhere,
it decided to start its first project here in the
"California has a lot of potential,
high-temperature potential," Johannesson said.
ThermaSource, meanwhile, has seen demand
for its services jump. The company, which has worked
for years in the Geysers geothermal field north of
Calistoga, has six drill rigs operating in California
and Nevada. Two years ago, the company had three employees.
Now it has 160, said founder Louis Capuano Jr.
"The business community is into geothermal
big-time right now," he said. "We've got foreigners
coming into the U.S. to develop this resource, because
it's here. There's a lot of people taking a look."
The new interest in mining power from
the desert does face obstacles.
They include transmission. Many people
in the energy business, and in government, say the
high-power transmission lines currently strung across
the landscape can't carry much more energy. Yet several
proposals for new power lines have run into determined
Sempra Energy, which owns the San Diego
Gas & Electric utility, wants a new high-voltage line
to ship power from the Imperial Valley. But the company's
preferred route for the Sunrise Powerlink runs right
through Anza Borrego Desert State Park, a wild expanse
of dry mountains separating the desert from the coast.
Opponents say the line is unnecessary.
They want to add solar panels to new homes and commercial
buildings in the San Diego area and improve energy
efficiency, lessening the need for energy generated
In addition, they say the existing
transmission network should be able to handle more
electricity in the future, after some of the power-purchase
contracts signed by the state during the 2000-2001
energy crisis expire in 2011. Upgrading the existing
high-voltage line between San Diego and the Imperial
Valley, as well as other parts of the network, makes
more sense than building from scratch.
"At this moment, there's a lot of capacity
tied up on that line, but that evaporates in 2011,"
said Bill Powers, an energy industry engineer who
issued a report proposing alternatives to Sunrise
Signorotti said that while he doesn't
prefer any particular route, the area will need new
transmission lines if the state hopes to wring as
much energy as possible from the Imperial Valley geothermal
fields. And the state will need that energy to meet
its renewable-power goals. His company estimates that
its small corner of the Salton Sea shore could generate
at least an additional 900 megawatts, perhaps as much
"To meet the renewable ... standard,
it's going to be absolutely critical that the Salton
Sea resource be developed," Signorotti said. "I don't
see any way around it."
E-mail David R. Baker at email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A
- 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle