RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here in California, utilities are in a tight spot. They're required to get 20 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by the end of next year. Right now the utilities have reached about 12 percent. So more green energy is needed soon, and that has the utilities heading for the desert - in the far southern part of California, an area becoming known as a Wild West of renewable energy. Rob Schmitz of member station KQED reports.
ROB SCHMITZ: In the 19th century, prospectors walked the unforgiving desert here in the Imperial Valley. They had scraggly beards, sun-baked skin, and after taking weeks to get here, they probably didn't smell very good. They were driven by a quest for gold and later oil. Now a new kind of prospector walks the same route.
Mr. KEVIN HARPER (Stirling Energy): So as soon as the sunlight comes up in the East, they basically turn on.
SCHMITZ: This guy doesn't look like a traditional prospector. Kevin Harper wears retro glasses and a polo shirt. He's a project manager for Phoenix-based Stirling Energy. He is describing sun catchers, what look like enormous satellite dishes with mirrors. Thirty-eight thousand of them will stand four stories high each 40 feet across over these 10 square miles.
Mr. HARPER: And so they activate and then they just start tracking the sunlight during the day. Like sunflowers, in a sense.
SCHMITZ: It's a dream to be realized five years from now when this patch of desert will hold one of the largest solar thermal plants in the world. It will produce enough energy to power more than 600,000 homes on the other side of the mountains in San Diego.
Mr. HARPER: To me it's kind of an engineering feat. It's much like what happened with hydropower with the Hoover Dam and whatnot. Much like a national monument some day, basically a point in time when we, you know, took a step, you know, towards renewable energy for commercial power.
SCHMITZ: If anyone can appreciate this moment in history, it's Andy Horne. He's in charge of permitting renewable energy projects in Imperial County. Horne unfurls a map the size of his desk showing dozens of proposed projects in this valley.
Mr. ANDY HORNE (Imperial County Energy Project): This is a map what was prepared by the central field office of BLM that shows - and this is only on public land, and I can assure you that there are number of…
SCHMITZ: 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 here. 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.
Mr. HORNE: We have 2,300 megawatts that we know that it's not been tapped yet. And so people are looking to how do we generate that.
SCHMITZ: Once tapped, that would be enough to power two 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.
Mr. HORNE: The Imperial Valley is very excited. We knew that we would be the hotbed of something, and so it's here now.
SCHMITZ: 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 workforce for jobs in this industry and to build the controversial transmission corridors it'll take to carry this clean energy to the coastal cities that want it.
For NPR News, I'm Rob Schmitz.
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