A Solar Farm for Owens Lake

The LATimes recently published a story about a possible new use of the Owens Lake Playa – a 616 acre solar power plant. The Owens Lake Playa is a place that I care about and have dedicated a significant amount of time researching and writing about.

Owens Lake seen from Horseshoe Meadow Road

Here is the Op-Ed I submitted to the LATimes to support the project:

It is important to remember that the Owens Lake Playa is an artificial landscape created by the growth of Los Angeles. While the entire Owens Valley is a sublime landscape, it is not a pristine wilderness. As such, the Owens Valley is an ideal location for locating a large concentrating solar energy facility, especially because the transmission capacity already exists and the potential benefit of further reducing the PM10 dust emissions off the Playa.

Owens Lake Playa is already an industrialized landscape. On the east, there is the massive court mandated DWP Dust Mitigation project, and to the west is US Borax’s trona mine. All around the lake and in the adjacent mountains are relics of historical mining activity. In this context, a large field of mirrors (taking up less then 1% of the Playa) is more appropriate then out in the Mojave Desert where that fragile ecology would be negatively impacted by a project of similar size. The current Playa ecology of brine flies, Plovers, and migrating water fowl can easily adapt to a solar farm, while the high and low deserts would be deeply scarred and damaged.

There are a few issues that need study before the project can move forward: how much water is really required (including the washing the mirrors), what is the impact of the dust on the mirrors and other equipment, and what sorts of foundations will be required to support the mirrors and turbines on the tectonically active mud flats of the Playa, to name a few. The only negative drawback of sitting a solar plant at the bottom of the ‘Deepest Valley’ are the afternoons shadows of the Sierra’s that will limit energy production during the hours of peak demand in late afternoon. Care should also be taken to avoid the ecological productive areas of the Lake including the Owens River Delta and the myriad of spring fed wetlands.

There are always tradeoffs in sitting large infrastructure projects such as a solar power station. The Owens Lake Playa is one of the best sites for developing California’s solar energy capacity in that it minimizes the compromises and negative environmental impacts.

Dust control 'bubblers' on Owens Lake

Halobacteria tinting the Owens Lake brine red

An image from my 2005 Masters thesis to restore Owens Lake

[Update: More LAtimes stories about the Owens Lake Solar Farm plans, 12/18/2009 & 2/1/2010]

Creative Commons License
by Barry Lehrman and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.


3 thoughts on “A Solar Farm for Owens Lake

  1. while my initial reaction to the solar farm proposal was gung-ho approval, I’m starting to have some doubts about the viability of the such a project.

    First, there are daunting geotechnical issues to building out on the playa as witnessed in the efforts to deploy the dust control system.

    second, (though maybe the most salient legal issue) is protecting the snowy plover’s nesting habitat. Significant effort was expended during the engineering of the dust control system to avoid creating perches for predatory birds around the plover. So every pump enclosure, power line tower, stand pipe, and vertical element was studied and designed to prevent ravens and raptors from using them to raid the plover nests. Somewhere in the technical documentation for the MOA there is a height limit. A solar farm will certainly create perches for the opportunistic predators that will then impact the nests of the plover.

    Third, the playa can and does flood – so what elevation will they set the panels to avoid being inundated?

    Forth, the playa is and still will be a dusty place even with the dust control system – keeping the panels clean will take lots of clean non-salinated water. There are two sources of water out on the playa – the aqueduct and ground water. On the Keeler side, the water is non-potable because of arsenic – this may or may not be usable for washing panels.

  2. Pingback: solar owens lake – mammoth // building nothing out of something

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