Solar Ranch pros and cons

The devil is in the details in Los Angeles Department of Power and Water’s 1200 acre Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch proposal. This post is about a few of the tidbits not included in the DEIR (I, II, & III) or that the consultants have blatantly come to the wrong conclusion about.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of utility scale solar power like this project, BUT only when it is done in the right place and is actually Designed (with a big D) by folks like landscape architectures – not just engineered with no poetry like DWP seems to be doing.

Page 67 from SOVSR_DEIR_Vol.I_Aug_2013-reduced

Page 89 from SOVSR_DEIR_Vol.I_Aug_2013-reduced-2

Scenic impact

The proximity to Manzanar National Historic Site is the biggest boondoggle and the source of most opposition. There will be SUBSTANTIAL impacts on ‘scenic vistas’ no mater where the project is built (topic AE-1, AE-3 & AE-4). The viewshed analysis from Manzanar and 395 are pretty sloppy – note how the parking lot dominates the foreground. This isn’t the view that most visitors will be offended by.

Page 137 from SOVSR_DEIR_Vol.I_Aug_2013-reduced-3

Plus this part of the Owens Valley has great dark skies with minimal artificial lights near by – the solar ranch will substantially damage one of my favorite star gazing locations even if they try to limit light trespass.


That bright spot is Lone Pine from the Manzanar Airport.


The night sky from the southern alternative site, October 2012


Biggest environmental issue is the impact of pumping an additional 10 acre-feet of groundwater to clean the photovoltaic panels. So how much water will be needed during construction for the concrete foundations and to control dust???

Alternative sites

To equal the 200mw capacity of the Solar Ranch, it would take just 20,000 – 40,000 residential installations at 5-10kw each. Since there are 665,992 single family houses in LA per the census, this just means that 17% of houses need to install solar panels to replace the Solar Ranch.
The 1200 acres ‘needed’ by DWP can easily be found around Los Angeles on city owned property (for example, the Whitnall Highway R.O.W is about 120 acres)

So the statement that distributed PVs are ‘Infeasible under existing power system operational capabilities without compromising system integrity and safety’ is to kindly state, BS.

Shadows from the Sierra Nevadas and the Inyo Mountains aren’t covered. This diagram was generated by the University of Oregon Solar Path Calculator and Google Earth.

Solar Path and Shadows

Solar Path and rough estimate of Shadows.

Sun Path_Page_1

Looking at the insolation aka how cloudy it is, the Owens Valley has pristine blue skies about 25% of the time. Okay, this is using weather data for Bishop which is the nearest NOAA weather station, not for the region near Independence/Manzanar. This is a screen shot of UCLA’s Climate Consultant 5.2, using data from the US Department of Energy.

Screen Shot 2013-11-14 at 10.48.31 PM

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 1.02.28 AM

[Gotta get to bed tonight, I’ll try to update this from the DWP meeting on Saturday or after the fact when I get a chance]

Sublime Solar Farm

Photographer Jamey Stillings documents the sublime of Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System for Wired.

Aerial Photos of Giant Google-Funded Solar Farm Caught in Green Energy Debate | Raw File |

Aerial view of Solar Field One at the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) on October 27, 2012. Photo shows completed tower construction and heliostat (pairs of mirrors) installation. Mojave Desert, CA

Screen Shot 2012-12-12 at 8.04.10 PM

Some of his photos evoking the Nazca lines or Michael Heizer’s Complex – this is quite the documentation of the infrastructural sublime.

Aerial Photos of Giant Google-Funded Solar Farm Caught in Green Energy Debate | Raw File |

Clark Mountain and ground work for future power block of Solar Field One. January 14, 2011.

View north of Ivanpah Solar showing all three solar fields with heliostat installation complete in Solar Field One in the foreground. October 27, 2012.

There is a remarkable amount of intact vegetation beneath the heliostats – making me wonder if it is possible to design a low-impact solar farm?

Installed heliostats in Solar Field One and adjacent section of undisturbed desert terrain of the site’s alluvial fan. January 6, 2012.

Installed heliostats in “safe” or resting position. June 2, 2012

Workers install a heliostat on a pylon in Solar Field One. June 4, 2012.

More of Jamey Stillings pics at Aerial Photos of Giant Google-Funded Solar Farm Caught in Green Energy Debate | Raw File | and Stillings’ own website.

The dark side of solar

The math isn’t adding up for the local economics of solar farms as reported by the LAtimes.

BrightSource Energy’s $2.7-billion Hidden Hills solar power plant in Inyo County was  first estimated to boost the County;s general fund 17%. But this didn’t factor in the federal solar tax exclusion on property. Fewer than 10 local workers get permanent jobs — just 5% of the construction jobs would be filled by county residents, who are likely to spend their money in Nevada – not Inyo County’s population center in Owens Valley. Improvements to public infrastructure like roads would cost the county $11 million to $12 million. Then in perpetuity would be  nearly $2 million a year in additional public safety and other services paid by tax payers. This reality contrasts with the rosy picture painted by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, who promised 1,000 construction jobs and 100 permanent positions, generating wages of nearly $550 million over the life of the project contributing more than $300 million in local and state tax revenues. Not much discussion of the ecological side in the article beyond the expected higher property values and decreased public access to land as habitat mitigation areas are cordoned off.

“We’ve got county residents living in cargo containers near the solar site, seniors living in trailer parks on fixed incomes — they all manage to pay their 1% property tax fee,” said Kevin Carunchio, the county’s administrative official. “Nobody is outright against these projects on ideological grounds or land-use principles. We don’t think we should have to bear the cost for energy that is being exported to metropolitan areas.”

Then there is the visual impacts:

“Residents will live as close as 600 feet from a heliostat field replete with approximately 170,000 mirrors encircling two 750-foot towers as their neighbor.”

BrightSource maintained that the power plant would not create a significant visual impact. Instead the project has been pitched as a potential tourist attraction, with its twin 70-story towers envisioned as a magnet drawing sightseers to the Pahrump Valley.

Carunchio — who is open to most plans to bring attention to the region — is skeptical.

“I can’t believe that people will drive the long way to Death Valley just to look at the Eye of Mordor,” he said.

Elsewhere in the Mojave:

“Southern California is going to become the home to the state’s ability to meet its solar goals,” said Gerry Newcombe, public works director for San Bernardino County. “That’s great, but where are the benefits to the county?”

in San Bernadino County, the $2.2-billion Ivanpah solar project will be proving a $377,000 annual payment to the county in lieu of taxes. This doesn’t cover the public safety costs.

Gov. Jerry Brown has vowed to “crush” opponents of solar projects. At the launch of a solar farm near Sacramento, the governor pledged: “It’s not easy. There are gonna be screw-ups. There are gonna be bankruptcies. There’ll be indictments and there’ll be deaths. But we’re gonna keep going — and nothing’s gonna stop me.” …

“The solar companies are the beneficiaries of huge government loans, tax credits and, most critically for me, property tax exemptions, at the expense of taxpayers,” said [Riverside] county Supervisor John Benoit, referring to a variety of taxpayer-supported loans and grants available to large solar projects as part of the Obama administration’s renewable energy initiative. “I came to the conclusion that my taxpayers need to get something back.”

Solar development isn’t looking as bright as it was – but just contrast this with permanent destruction of groundwater, nearby resident’s health, and green house gas emissions of fracking and the negative impacts of solar still make it the best energy source (other than conservation) we have.  The best place for solar is on roofs and disturbed lands – not intact desert habitat There is a place for large utility scale solar energy development, but it needs to be done wisely, not quickly.

Solar power plants burden counties that host them –

Cellulosic dawn

Ken Childress for KiOR

The decades-long pursuit of fermenting woody plants into fuel aka cellulosic biofuels is now a commercial reality with two pilot plants just opened and more under construction. This renewable fuel – not made from corn or other food crops – has one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide compared to petroleum-based fuels. If those forests get, then it could even be claimed that cellulosic fuels are carbon neutral. Of course, there is the ecological footprint of chopping down forests for energy – but that is a debate that is yet to come.

In Columbus, Miss., KiOR has spent more than $200 million on a plant that is supposed to mix shredded wood waste with a patented catalyst, powdered to talcumlike consistency. Its process does in a few seconds what takes nature millions of years: removes the oxygen from the biomass and converts the other main ingredients, hydrogen and carbon, into molecules that can then be processed into gasoline and diesel fuel…

And Ineos, a European oil and chemical company, is putting the final touches on a plant in Vero Beach, Fla., that would cook wood and woody garbage until they broke down into tiny molecules of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Those molecules would be pumped into a giant steel tank, where bacteria would eat them and excrete ethanol. –

KiOR’s Columbus, MS Plant

Ineos Vera Beach, FL Plant

via Alternative Fuels’ Long-Delayed Promise Might Be Near Fruition –

Fall mid-review

The public is invited to attend the fall mid-review presentations for LA301L and LA401L at Cal Poly Pomona on Monday, October 29th.

301L teams are identifying culturally relevant sites along the LA Aqueduct and discussing the landscape character. 401L students have mapped the water-energy nexus for Los Angeles and are selecting sites to enhance the resilience of the Aqueduct (plus there is a team who are hoping to win the EPA’s Campus RainWorks Competition).

Guest Jurors

  • 301L: Andrew Kanzler, Perry Cardoza
  • 401L: Robert Lamb, Jonathan Linkus

Cal Poly central campus map [pdf]

Please send a note if you are interested in being a guest juror for either mid-review session or final presentations (November 28th)

Sustainable Energy Landscapes


I’m really excited to announce the publication on October 19th of Sustainable Energy Landscapes: Designing, Planning, and Development, (edited by Sven Stremke and Andy van den Dobbelsteen) that includes my Chapter 21, written with the help of my Zero+ Campus Project’s colleagues at the University of Minnesota.

In the near future the appearance and spatial organization of urban and rural landscapes will be strongly influenced by the generation of renewable energy. One of the critical tasks will be the re-integration of these sustainable energy landscapes into the existing environment—which people value and want to preserve—in a socially fair, environmentally sound, and economically feasible manner. Accordingly, Sustainable Energy Landscapes: Designing, Planning, and Development focuses on the municipal and regional scale, where energy-conscious interventions are effective, and stakeholders can participate actively in the transition process.

This book presents state-of-the-art knowledge in the exciting new field of sustainable energy landscapes. It bridges the gap between theory and fundamental research on the one hand, and practice and education on the other. The chapters—written by experts in their fields—present a selection of interdisciplinary, cutting-edge projects from across the world, illustrating the inspiring challenge of developing sustainable energy landscapes. They include unique case studies from Germany, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Austria, Italy, and the United States.

The editors and team of contributing authors aim to inspire readers, providing a comprehensive overview of sustainable energy landscapes, including principles, concepts, theories, and examples. The book describes various methods, such as energy potential mapping and heat mapping, multicriteria decision analysis, energy landscape visualization, and employing exergy and carbon models. It addresses how to quantify the impact of energy transition both on landscape quality and energy economy, issues of growing importance. The text infuses readers with enthusiasm to promote further research and action toward the important goal of building energy landscapes for a sustainable future.

The full marketing announcement: K14201_NTI FL [pdf]