Sunny outlook | Monocle

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On a recent spring afternoon, Suzanne Ragsdale drove through her inheritance: a dusty, storied desert town between Los Angeles and Phoenix. Desert Center, population around 120, was founded by her grandfather and is today owned by Ragsdale and her five brothers. She admits that it has seen better days. The two petrol stations and market are shuttered and most of its palm trees have died for lack of watering. But a more ­affluent future seems to beckon. An ­Arizona company wants to build a solar-power plant near the town, part of a solar boom that is sweeping the deserts of the southwestern United States. “All those construction workers will come and eat, they’ll need a place to sleep,” Ragsdale says. “I’ll take their money, you bet.”

Some 220 solar-power plants have been proposed for the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, which stretch across southern California, Nevada and Arizona. Fourteen of them have been fast-tracked through the planning process and are in the running for economic stimulus funding. David Freeman is head of the Los ­Angeles Department of Public Works, which is planning a giant solar farm on the dry bed of what was once Owens Lake, 200km from LA. He says, “It could be akin to Silicon Valley. It would be the Solar Valley of America.”

Solar plant technology is not new in these deserts, which receive more sunlight than any other part of the US. An installation known as SEGS has operated in the Mojave since the 1980s but its widespread deployment here is a contemporary phenomenon. “The first plants lacked a real market,” says Daniel Kammen, an energy expert at UC Berkeley. Now, around 30 states have renewable portfolio standards, specifying that anywhere from 10 per cent of energy in ­Wisconsin to 33 per cent in California and 40 per cent in Hawaii should come from renewable sources. Robert Laughlin, a Nobel Laureate in physics at ­Stanford University, calls the Mojave “the Saudi Arabia of solar”. Moreover, he says, the major cities on the deserts’ edges – Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Tucson – are ideal recipients of electricity generated by the plants.

Technological advances have also served to boost commercial interest in the solar industry. Traditionally, plants have only been able to generate energy when the sun shines and are inoperative at night or in cloudy weather. Batteries have proven an inefficient, expensive way to store the energy. Now firms are deploying something called molten salt heat storage, which can be used with certain types of solar plants. The principle is simple: heat stored in salt does not readily dissipate. “You can put it into a tank, store it, move that power generation around,” says Kevin Smith, CEO of SolarReserve, which is considering 20 sites for solar plants in the US deserts. “We can run 24 hours a day.” Experts say this desert rush has global implications. Major foreign firms, such as Acciona of Spain and Germany’s Solar Millennium, are involved. “Many companies, US and global, see the solar and wind expansion in the US as the No 1 new market – that and China,” says Kammen.

And the knowledge that is being gleaned here is being exported around the world. Take Acciona: its Nevada plant is a joint venture with the US firm Solargenix, and is wholly staffed by ­domestic employees. But the engineers are being flown to Spain to consult on Acciona solar projects there.

American expertise is also being shipped abroad in the deal between US firm eSolar and Penglai Electric, which is based in the eastern Chinese city of Penglai and is best known for coal power-plant construction. Penglai negotiated exclusive rights to eSolar’s power tower technology and is committed to building 2 gigawatts of solar capacity over the next 10 years. “The US firms are the most innovative, whereas Chinese firms are more application-based,” explains Eric Wang, a senior vice president at Penglai. Although there is a booming market in China for rooftop photovoltaic panels – these convert sunlight to electricity directly – there is little experience with solar thermal technology, which uses mirrors to focus heat and power turbines.

Still, the economics of solar power are simple. Solar electricity costs around 35 cents per kilowatt-hour for US residential users, whereas the average electricity price is 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. Whether comparable prices – known as grid parity – will be achieved is a contentious issue among experts. “The price for photovoltaic panels has fallen over 50 per cent just over the last year but it probably has to fall over another 50 per cent while retaining government subsidies to achieve parity,” says David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, which is planning 10 solar plants. Ultimately, says Freeman of the LA utility, consumers may have to swallow the extra expense for the sake of eco-friendliness. “The price is higher but the cost to society is lower.”

The scrubby southwestern deserts are home to Joshua trees, endangered desert tortoises, rattlesnakes and scorpions. The human presence is limited to a few cities and towns, national parks, military bases and some odder locations, such as aeroplane boneyards and a spaceport. Temperatures in some parts regularly top 49C, and water is precious. In Desert Center, residents dig 600ft wells to reach it.

The handful of solar plants already up and running here serve as indicators of how the industry and area might develop. On an arid plain near Boulder City, a manicured settlement 48km south of Las Vegas, motorists catch glimpses of what appears to be a small, shimmering body of water. It soon comes into focus as an expanse of 192,000 mirrors, enough to produce 64 megawatts of electricity at peak generation times, or power 14,000 homes. Partly owned by Acciona, Nevada Solar One is a $266m (€194m), 300-acre parabolic trough plant. The mirrors focus sunlight onto a tube containing oil, heating it to a maximum of 400C. Hot oil is then fed through a series of pipes that hold water, causing it to boil. The resulting steam powers an electricity-generating turbine. The ­heating oil has a ripe, chemical scent that lingers in parts of the facility. “We call it the smell of money,” says site manager Bob Cable.

While most land in the desert region is federal and the majority of solar firms apply to the government for permission to use it, Boulder City is an exception: it owns the land that is leased to Acciona. Income from the deal has buoyed the community during the economic crisis, says Mayor Roger Tobler. In the financial year ending in June, Tobler expects to earn $3.5m (€2.6m) from leases to solar firms, which amounts to 12 per cent of total municipal income. “It’s really helped Boulder City meet its obligations as we’ve had our revenues cut significantly,” he says.

In LA, city leaders are ­envisioning Boulder City writ large. And local leaders seem optimistic about the plants’ impacts on their communities. But environmentalists say they could harm native species and ruin the desert’s amber-hued vistas.

Dennis Schramm, superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve, agrees. He took Monocle on a tour of a proposed solar site near Primm, a Nevada town consisting of a few casinos and a roller coaster. Dressed in the uniform of the National Park Service – tie, hat and trousers in various shades of green – Schramm points out tangled cholla cactus, spiky Mojave yucca, and the humped back of Clark Mountain, the tallest peak under his aegis. “It doesn’t make sense to destroy almost pristine desert lands,” he says.

Aside from obliterating tortoise territory, he says, the plant could disrupt the migration of bighorn sheep to their lambing grounds and mar views of the mountain. In total, nine solar and wind plants have been proposed around his preserve. “The scale of the disturbance in the desert is kind of scary,” he says. He accepts that solar plants are a good idea but proposes they be installed on brownfield sites and rooftops instead.

For local leaders such as Suzanne Ragsdale of Desert Center, the challenge now is to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of having a solar plant on the doorstep. Project developer First Solar says it may build a visitor centre near the Desert Center plant, and that $10m in sales tax could go to county coffers. But the plant will abut the property of local jojoba farmers Larry and Donna Charpied, who have raised objections.

In the end, Ragsdale says she will do what’s best for her community. “My obsession is to make Desert Center alive again,” she says, gesturing to her tumbledown town. A solar plant could be the answer. “It’s the domino effect: if one person can build an income, we’re all going to share it.”

Making the desert blossom

With some regions of the Mojave receiving under two inches of rainfall in the driest years, it does not seem the most favourable location for agriculture. But a few farmers have made the desert bloom. A firm called Cadiz taps aquifers to grow citrus fruits, peppers and squash on a 9,600-acre property. Near Desert Center, there are farms for jojoba and jatropha, which can survive with minimal watering. The former is used in cosmetics, while the latter can be refined into biodiesel, and has partly powered Air New Zealand and Continental jets in tests.

Space port

The first sign of anything unusual in the desert north of Los Angeles is the row of 747s outlined on the horizon. Then the sign: “Welcome to Mojave – Gateway to Space!” Airliners meet their end here as scrap metal, but for spacecraft and concept jets, Mojave is where the journey begins. Around 10 aerospace companies are based at the airport, including Scaled Composites, the manufacturer for Virgin Galactic. A firm called Interorbital designs personal satellites, which universities can purchase and launch for $8,000 (€5,900). Xcor creates reusable spacecraft and rocket propulsion systems. “We’re in the business to make a profit, but on a personal level, we all just really want to go into space,” says Xcor spokesman Mike Massee.

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