Calif. Desert Becomes Home For Renewable Energy

California's utilities are in a tight spot. They're mandated to procure 20 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by the end of next year.

Currently, renewable energy provides only 12 percent of the state's needs. Green energy is needed, and fast. Where to get it? The southeastern corner of California is becoming the state's Wild West of renewable energy.

Five years from now this patch of desert will hold one of the largest solar thermal plants in the world. An area of 10 square miles will be filled with 38,000 "sun catchers," which look like enormous satellite dishes with mirrors.

A High-Tech Sunflower

"So they activate and they start tracking the sunlight throughout the day. Like sunflowers in a sense," says Kevin Harper, a project manager for Phoenix-based Stirling Energy, which develops solar power equipment for power plants.

It will produce enough energy to power more than 600,000 homes on the other side of the mountains in San Diego.

"To me, it's an engineering feat," he says. "It's much like what happened with hydropower with the Hoover Dam and whatnot. Much like a national monument someday — a point in time when we took a step towards renewable energy for commercial power."

The Bureau of Land Management has received 163 applications to build solar and wind projects on 1.6 million acres of federal land in California. Almost all of them are planned for the Imperial Valley and the desert region north of the valley.

Geothermal Power

The vacant, sun-drenched, wind-swept floor of the Imperial Valley makes it a perfect candidate for wind and solar power. But it doesn't stop there. Its location — along the San Andreas fault line, and the fact that part of the valley is below sea level — means it's one of the few places in the country where geothermal power is widely available.

Steam from below the earth runs a turbine five stories above the Salton Sea's southern shore. This plant, run by CalEnergy, produces 340 megawatts, enough to power around 300,000 homes. But company spokesman Mark Gran says there's much more power underneath this valley.

"We have 2,300 megawatts that we know hasn't been tapped yet," he says. "So, people are looking to how we generate that."

Once tapped, that would be enough to power 2 million homes. And unlike wind and solar, which are intermittent sources of energy dependent on sunlight and weather conditions, geothermal is available all the time.

"The Imperial Valley is very excited. We knew that we would be the hotbed of something, so it's here now," says Gran.

Anything would help. Imperial is the poorest county in the state. Its unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent, among the worst in the nation. The challenge now is to train this potential work force for jobs in this industry and build the controversial transmission corridors it will take to carry this clean energy to the coastal cities that want it.

Rob Schmitz reports for member station KQED.

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