How Palm Springs Can Improve Daily Life With More Solar Power

The Albert Frey-designed Palm Springs City Hall might not hold up solar panels, but there are lots of great places in town that could use them. | Photo: Kansas Sebastian/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Here's an increasingly common story that nonetheless has special personal significance for us here at ReWire: the Palm Springs City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to hire a consultant to craft a city-wide solar plan, with the goal of generating at least 5 megawatts of power to offset energy use in the city's municipal buildings.

With a 5-0 vote, the council approved paying San Francisco-based engineering firm Newcomb Anderson McCormick $49,000 to conduct a photovoltaic feasibility study that would include the possibility of siting solar arrays on city-owned properties.

As the Desert Sun's Xochitl Peña reports, the Mid-Century Modern stylings of many of the city's municipal buildings limit the amount of rooftop solar that can be installed, making the city look to other options for siting.

"A lot of our buildings are older and don't lend themselves as readily to solar on the roofs," City Manager David Ready told Peña.

The city's wastewater treatment plant is being eyed as a possible location for at least some of the solar panels. A number of public buildings in the city, including the Visitors' Center and a fire station, are already being fitted with solar panels through a mitigation deal with the operators of the new gas-fired Sentinel power plant in Desert Hot Springs.

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Things have been looking more positive for solar in the Coachella valley lately. In August, the Coachella Valley Association of Governments and Riverside County announced they'd formed a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) district, which will allow commercial and residential property owners to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy investments with no initial cash layout, paying off the loans on their property tax bills. The district covers both the Coachella and Palo Verde valleys (which second valley includes Blythe and Ripley), and financing will be handled by PACE loan specialists Ygrene.

One city after another in California is turning its attention to solar. As solar energy becomes increasingly competitive with power from the grid, cities -- which often have considerable utility bills and lots of flat space suitable for solar -- are increasingly finding the concept of generating their own power very appealing.

But ReWire will confess to a special excitement over the news from Coachella Valley, in that ReWire was based in Palm Springs through two hot summers. The amount of solar radiation the Coachella Valley receives literally constitutes a quality of life issue for many of the Valley's poorest residents, and can be a serious inconvenience for the rest of us. Walking across a parking lot in summer in the valley's cities can be an experience rivaling a hike on the floor of Death Valley. Some residents even leave their cars running in the parking lots while they shop so as to keep the air conditioning going, a seeming extravagance that can nonetheless keep you from getting first degree burns when you return to your vinyl steering wheel and upholstery.

If any place in the world should focus on solar photovoltaics, it's those desert cities. You don't even have to stick the panels out of sight in an industrial lot somewhere. Build a series of attractive 15-foot trellises in public places, put solar panels above them and benches or parking spaces below, and the quality of life in the Valley will increase immeasurably. Residents and visitors would enjoy being able to go outside in July without worry, and merchants will benefit from people's increased willingness to go out and browse.

The city of Palm Springs has a chance to show just how we can fold power generation into our daily surroundings that will make everyone happier and more comfortable. Here's hoping they take that chance.

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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