Can Green Energy Power the Antelope Valley Out of the Slump?

palmdale2.jpgHundreds of thousands of Joshua trees are about the only things dotting miles of vacant lots in the barren, desert landscape of the Antelope Valley. But soon many of these acres of emptiness may be covered with thousands of mirrors tracking the sun's progression through the sky and concentrating that solar energy to power surrounding homes and businesses.

A Pasadena-based renewable energy company, eSolar, is investing in the Antelope Valley as a prime location for many of its upcoming projects. The company cites the 300 days of sunshine per year and the huge amount of available land as the perfect setting to develop its green power technology.

One can think of this development as a symbiotic relationship—eSolar gets plentiful, sunny desert real estate for cheap and the Antelope Valley gets jobs and a boost to their local economy.

A fully-functioning eSolar plant in Lancaster is currently exporting energy for 4,000 homes through a power-purchase agreement with Southern California Edison. Built over the past two years, it created 200-300 temporary construction jobs for area residents and 21 permanent positions in an area where unemployment is approaching 17 percent.

And it gets better. Pacific Gas and Electric Company has contracted with eSolar to complete a 92 megawatt solar plant which will power an estimated 30,000 homes. If the pending project is approved it could be completed in 2012 and is expected to create thousands of jobs, including some that draw from the local pool of engineers and scientists that have worked for decades in the numerous aerospace companies that reside in the Antelope Valley.

Southern California Edison has also turned to eSolar to expand upon their existing 5 megawatt plant in Lancaster, with plans to build enough plants in the Antelope Valley to produce a combined 245 megawatts of power. eSolar's ventures were funded privately with $130 million in investments by companies like Google.

Public entities are jumping on the Antelope Valley green rush, as well. The city of Palmdale has proposed a $1 billion hybrid power plant. It's seeking approval for its plan from the California Energy Commission, and hopes the plant will be producing energy by 2013.

This plant is considered a hybrid because it will use a combination of solar-thermal and natural gas-fired technology to create power. The city has contracted with Inland Energy, based in Newport Beach, to prepare and execute the plans. The 570-megawatt plant is slated to be built on 300 acres of barren land purchased from aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin for $18 million.

The city's main impetus for building the power plant is to spur more economic development within its city limits, says assistant city manager, Laurie Lile.

"We were having such issues related to power reliability and...availability," said Lile, noting that's not exactly a selling point for attracting new businesses to the area. She added that by ensuring a consistent, cheaper supply of power, Palmdale hopes to draw more businesses into the city and keep existing companies doing business there.

Many of these existing Palmdale-area businesses are involved in aerospace and national defense manufacturing. Companies such as Lockeed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have huge production facilities in Palmdale that employ thousands of area residents. Losing even one of these firms to other areas with lower energy costs would deal a major blow to Palmdale's economy.

"One of the challenges is to remain competitive as a location for these companies to do business," said John Mlynar, communications manager for the city of Palmdale. "One of the ways we can remain competitive is to provide...lower costs for electricity."

Assistant City Manager Lile added that she's been contacted by a number of smaller private business owners who want to snap up available land, anything from 20 to 200 acre parcels, for their own solar development.

"There's a mini land rush," said Lile. "I think these are people that are...trying to be ahead of the game... A lot of it is speculative at this time."

"People don't even have lots at this point but are calling looking for their gold mine," said Lile.

Even though the Antelope Valley's economy is hurting right now, it might find renewable energy development provides its ticket out of hard times.

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