News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Giant Solar Project Planned on Edwards Air Force Base

The desert at Edwards AFB may soon generate solar power | Photo: TMWolf/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A 450-megawatt solar project may break ground as early as next year at Edwards Air Force Base in the western Mojave Desert. The project, now undergoing environmental review, would sell power to utilities outside the military base.

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The proposed Oro Verde Solar Project is proceeding under a 2010 agreement between Edwards Air Force Base and the solar contractor SunEdison, which would lease up to 4,000 acres in the base's northwestern corner in Kern County. The Air Force would use SunEdison's rent checks to pay for energy conservation on the base, and SunEdison would sell its power to willing California utilities.

The project could add another six square miles of potential renewable energy development to the Antelope Valley area, which has been as close to a wind and solar "ground zero" as exists in the U.S. The region's largely agricultural past means there are relatively large tracts of private land with somewhat lower habitat value than in the public lands farther east in the Mojave.

Oro Verde would likely tie into the local transmission grid at one of two spots along Oak Creek Road west of Mojave: Southern California Edison's Windhub substation or the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's Barren Ridge-Rinaldi transmission line. The area's transmission has been built up in recent years in anticipation of hundreds of megawatts of new wind and solar power.

Developing the Antelope Valley's relatively disturbed land has lower risk to wildlife habitat than putting solar on intact old-growth desert farther east, but "lower" doesn't mean "none." Historic surveys of the Oro Verde site have found the rare plant species alkali mariposa lily (Calochortus striatus) and Mojave spineflower (Chorizanthe spinosa) among the creosote and Joshua trees.

A full biological survey of the site has not yet been conducted, but the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department notes that the area may be used as foraging habitat by birds. A 2009 report on the area that would be occupied by the project found no evidence of Mohave ground squirrels, a state-listed threatened species, but the biologists who conducted that survey in 2008 noted that their survey had followed two years of exceptional drought, possibly causing squirrels to leave the area. It's not impossible that the site could be home to kit foxes, desert tortoises, and burrowing owls.

The final size of the project is yet to be determined: the eventual capacity of Oro Verde may be as low as 150 megawatts. That depends in part on the environmental assessment process, now underway. The public comment period for the project's initial "scoping" stage ended Monday, and a draft Environmental Impact Report will follow in the weeks to come. SunEdison hopes too start construction in 2014, with completion by 2016.

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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