Two More Desert Solar Power Projects Approved in California

California may be doing more than any other US state so far to reduce dependence on fossil fuel energy and emissions. This week California yet again took great strides toward a low-carbon economy, cracking down on carbon emissions while also moving to ensure fossil fuels are replaced with renewable power sources. On Thursday as I’ve written previously, the state Air Resources Board approved one of the first cap and trade programs for reducing carbon emissions in the United States. But state regulators also took an important step Wednesday, when the California Energy Commission granted approval to two giant solar thermal power plant projects that would be sited in the desert.

Like other desert regions of the world, the Southwest United States is attracting attention as an ideal place to locate large solar projects. It’s an especially attractive location given nearby highly populated areas in California, and the California state government’s commitment to creating green jobs while shifting away from fossil fuel energy and emissions. As of this week a total of ten new solar projects capable of generating fifty megawatts or more have been approved for construction by the California Energy Commission. At least two more such projects are under review.

Taken together, these large solar farms represent Solar Power with a capital “S” and a capital “P.” If they are built, it will no longer be possible to regard solar energy as a cute but uncompetitive resource relegated to small clusters of photovoltaic cells fixed to the tops of buildings. The largest of the California desert proposals would be able to produce as much energy as a big coal plant. Nor will California’s solar future be put on hold by the flawed and misguided argument that “the lights will go out when the sun stops shining.” Earlier this year the state legislature passed a bill mandating that utilities pursue ways to store the solar energy they generate for long periods.

Of course there’s no guarantee every solar project approved by the California Energy Commission will finally be completed—or even that it should be completed. Many of the projects face additional hurdles they must overcome, and there are legitimate concerns about the locations of some. For example the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation has argued one big solar project may impact their tribal lands and the habitat of the imperiled flat-tailed horned lizard. These are factors that deserve serious consideration, and it may prove some projects now on the table turn out not to be viable.

Yet to quibble over the problems confronting individual large solar projects is to miss the bigger picture. The bottom line is California has become a hot spot for large solar farms that will create hundreds or thousands of jobs while reducing dependence on dirty energy and emissions. Some of these projects are going to be built—whether the final tally comes in at seven, ten, or twelve. Both the climate and California’s economy will be the better off for every low-carbon electron these plants inject into the grid.

Photo credit: Michael Oh