Solar Power hitting Home run, California’s High desert

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In front of Clear Channel Stadium in Lancaster
Outside Clear Channel Stadium in Lancaster, Calif., an F/A-18 Hornet shows the region’s involvement with the military and aerospace industry.

By Michael Balchunas

Published Dec. 19, 2010

Construction projects worth billions of dollars are coming to Southern California’s Antelope Valley, and there’s a simple reason why.

“It’s the best place in the country for solar,” said Lyndon Rive, chief executive of the company SolarCity.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris and Lyndon Rive of SolarCity
Lyndon Rive, right, chief executive of the
company SolarCity, offers a hand to
Lancaster mayor R. Rex Parris at
a press conference marking the installation
of solar panels at the baseball stadium.

The region, on the southwestern fringe of the Mojave Desert, has an unbeatable combination of more than 300 sunny days a year on average, and tiered electricity prices that rise dramatically with high usage.

“The first thing to determine for whether solar works is, how much sun do you get?” Mr. Rive said at a ceremony marking the installation of the first solar panels on a carport that will generate almost 100 percent of the energy used annually at a municipal baseball stadium in Lancaster, Calif., in the heart of the Antelope Valley.

“We get a fair amount of sun out here,” he said. “The next thing is, what’s the cost of power? You get the most sun, and you pay a lot for your power. So solar has better economics in the Lancaster area than any other place in the country.”

Many utility-scale solar power plants are planned in the valley in northern Los Angeles County, which also features flat, wide open expanses of relatively cheap land, easy road access, a receptive business climate, and extensive power-line infrastructure already built or under construction.

“On the west side, you’re going to see solar fields sprouting up all over the place,” said R. Rex Parris, Lancaster’s mayor. “We are going to produce more energy in this city, by far, by a factor of two or three, than the city consumes. That’s truly an incredible development. And it’s all renewable. It’s all carbon-free.”

We are
going to
produce more
energy in this
city, by far…
than the city
That’s truly
an incredible
And it’s all
It’s all

R. Rex Parris
Lancaster mayor

For Mr. Rive’s company, which installs solar arrays at homes and small businesses, part of the attraction is the population of about 300,000 people in the metropolitan area, which includes the city of Palmdale, and the abundant signs advertising new subdivisions.

Although the economic downturn has slowed housing construction, there is plenty of room for new subdivisions and shopping centers in the area, best known from the book and movie “The Right Stuff” as the place where the Mercury and Apollo astronauts trained as test pilots. The Antelope Valley is home to sprawling Edwards Air Force Base, the NASA-Dryden Flight Research Center, and the “Skunk Works,” the famed aircraft development center that produced the U-2 and the SR-71 Blackbird.

Outside Lancaster’s Clear Channel Stadium, which will be almost completely solar-powered when SolarCity finishes its installation project, a NASA F/A-18 Hornet on a pedestal aims skyward, and the city’s California League baseball team is called the JetHawks.

Lancaster also is the place where KB Home and the China-based company BYD are building model homes of the future that have solar arrays on the roof, high-tech lithium battery systems in the garage, and charging systems for plug-in vehicles.

In addition to hosting large-scale solar power plants, the city and its blue-collar labor force could potentially become a manufacturing site as well for solar or electric vehicle equipment.

Mr. Parris, a conservative Republican who was easily re-elected mayor this year, commended his staff for pointing the city toward renewable energy development.

“They look for reasons to say yes instead of reasons to say no, and that makes all the difference in the world,” he said.

The city’s embrace of solar energy is just beginning, the mayor said. He said at Thursday’s ceremony inaugurating the stadium solar installation that he has no doubt Lancaster will end up with a significant competitive advantage by moving now to lay the foundation for a solar future.

Mr. Parris helps install a solar panel
Mayor Parris, left, lends a hand as one of
the panels is put into place at the stadium.

“We’ve reached peak oil and what that means is we’re going to produce less than we consume until we run out. The significance of that is that the cost of oil is going to go up, up and up,” said the mayor, who heads a prominent law firm.

The solar photovoltaic installation at the stadium is a carport built in two sections, one 330 feet long and another 360 feet long, shading about 1,500 parking spaces. The city expects the solar PV system to cover about 98 percent of the stadium’s annual electricity usage and to save about $48,000 on electricity costs in the first year.

Mr. Parris and the city’s staff have been tirelessly promoting Lancaster’s solar future. Large-scale solar developers are well aware of the area’s impending emergence as a solar powerhouse, but homeowners and small-business owners are still largely unaware of what’s coming.

Sempra Generation, part of the San Diego-based company Sempra Energy, which is also the parent of San Diego Gas & Electric Co., recently won approval from Kern County officials to build a 200-megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant just north of Lancaster near the town of Rosamond.

Just west of Lancaster, Arizona-based First Solar Inc. is planning a 230-megawatt solar PV power plant called AV Solar Ranch One, which is expected to win final approval soon from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Many other solar power plants have been proposed in the area, ranging up to 650 megawatts. None have yet started construction. In 2009, the company eSolar completed a 5-megawatt concentrating solar “power tower” project on the northern outskirts of Lancaster.

  Power lines
Many utility-scale solar power plants are
planned in the valley in northern Los Angeles
County, which features flat, wide open
expanses of relatively cheap land, easy
road access, a receptive business climate,
and extensive power-line infrastructure
already built or under construction. Above,
a power line west of Lancaster near the site
of a planned 230-megawatt solar power plant.

SolarCity recently concluded a program with the city called Solar Lancaster, intended to spur solar adoption. A total of 115 projects were signed up, totaling 12.5 megawatts. School systems in the Antelope Valley have solar projects totaling about 16 megawatts planned, completed or under construction.

At the stadium event, Mr. Parris said his administration’s pursuit of solar development is beginning to bear fruit.

“Instead of it being a vision or a hope or a dream, it’s reality,” the mayor said. “Just look at this,” he said, gesturing at the modern, 4,600-seat stadium’s towering banks of lights. “These things burn electricity like nobody’s business. I don’t know of a business that burns more electricity than these stadiums, and 98 percent of it is now alternative energy from the sun.

“To me, that just unbelievably impossible – impossible. I figured the whole parking lot would have to be covered, but that’s not the case. It’s a small section that’s covered,” he said, noting that the shade will be a blessing, since “You have to live here to understand the feeling of grabbing a 120-degree steering wheel.”

He said the stadium project should serve as a model.

“What this really tells us, and what we’re telling the whole state, is that there is not a business here that couldn’t have all of their electric needs met by solar,” the mayor said.

  Workers at the stadium site
Workers at the inauguration of the stadium’s
solar installation. Unlike other industries
during the recession, the solar sector has
expanded, adding thousands of jobs. 

Ron Smith, Lancaster’s vice mayor, said, “What is more American than watching a baseball game on Sunday afternoon with a hotdog in one hand and a drink in the other? Now the sun’s going to power that.”

Mr. Rive of SolarCity said that the stadium project is one of a handful of municipal solar installations to be built in Lancaster, which he said should save the city about $7 million during the 15-year contract period for the power purchase agreements.

“We’re very excited to see this city start taking off,” he said.

Mr. Parris said that what surprises him is that more homeowners have not taken advantage of the cost effectiveness of solar PV in the high desert, as the Mojave is known in California.

“They’re putting these panels on my house, and the reason they’re putting these panels on my house is it’s going to save me 500 dollars a month,” he said. “There’s a financing agreement and all of that, but there’s no out-of-pocket expense to me. Everybody in this city can do that. Everybody who owns a home can start saving money – depending on their electric bill, a hundred dollars, two hundred dollars, three hundred dollars a month that goes into their pocket. It’s such an incredible deal.”

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