Here again, critics say the green case for Sunrise is a screen for its true intent: moving dirty power generated by SDG&E’s parent company in Mexicali to markets in the United States. Although cleanly generated electricity from Imperial County could readily be transported via existing power lines, Sunrise Powerlink has fueled hopes that the infrastructure is being created to support a vast electricity export industry.
So potentially big, in fact, that even the 1000-megawatt Powerlink would be insufficient to transport all the power Imperial County might someday generate. Andy Horne, deputy Imperial County executive officer for natural resource development, said the county’s reserves of renewable energy were recently estimated at 40,000 megawatts, roughly the equivalent of more than 60 modern power plants.
For context, the highest electricity use ever recorded by SDG&E customers was just under 4700 megawatts this past September. Big questions remain about whether there is a market for all that potential in the Imperial Valley and whether advances in solar technology might make large rural solar-electric farms irrelevant.
After all, urban buildings coated with thin film photovoltaics might someday produce much of their own power. Offshore wind power could someday provide power when the sun isn’t shining. Google and several corporate partners, for example, recently said they would invest in a $5 billion underwater transmission project to move electricity from wind turbines in the ocean off the coast of the Northeast U.S.
For now, Imperial County has reason to hope that significant renewable energy will be coming its way. Horne lists some 2000 megawatts in projects that he’s begun to track because they’ve hired environmental consultants and sought permits, including potential geothermal projects.
These facilities generate electricity by tapping heat from the 500-degree brine found thousands of feet below Imperial County’s surface. While geothermal projects present environmental issues — pumping up that super-hot brine can bring arsenic, mercury, and nickel or other toxic materials to the surface — Horne said there are companies exploring the possibility of mining the brine for key minerals, a concept that failed in the past when mineral prices collapsed but may now be economically viable because those prices have risen.
A unit of MidAmerican Energy Holdings plans to break ground next year on a project that will expand its Imperial County geothermal electric-generating facilities from 350 to 1000 megawatts. This alone would more than double the 600 megawatts of geothermal electricity generation from Imperial County, the equivalent of adding a power plant.
There may be even more excitement about solar electric generation. The huge Imperial Valley Solar Project approved last month to cover ten square miles of the county is planned to produce about 700 megawatts. But there are technical questions surrounding the project.
The huge facility plans to deploy thousands of small engines, each equipped with a large array of large mirrors to direct the sun’s rays to heat fluid-filled tubes, which in turn drive the engines to produce electricity. The project plans to include 28,000 of these devices, which are called Stirling engines.
The project would employ up to 700 workers during its proposed three-year construction by an alliance of Tessera Solar and Stirling Energy Systems, which builds the engines. Once in operation, the Imperial Valley Solar Project plans to employ about 160 workers to maintain the facility’s 28,000 solar engines and keep the mirrors clean.
Skeptics of the project note that this technology has never before been deployed on this scale, let alone in a harsh desert environment.
Other solar thermal projects, which use heat rather than the sun’s light, are also planned. But more excitement within the renewable-energy world is now focused on photovoltaic cells, those beautifully simple panels that soak up sun and pump out electricity, as well as thin-film photovoltaic technology, which uses a pliable material suitable for covering rooftops.
These panels and films are becoming increasingly efficient, producing more electricity from the same surface area, and less expensively as well. Their beauty lies in their simplicity: they have no moving parts and are maintenance free, aside from periodic cleaning. The downside, from an economic-development perspective, is that even utility-scale photovoltaic projects, which could generate hundreds of megawatts, are expected to require almost no employees.
The PSEG Corporation, for example, has built projects in Florida, Ohio, and New Jersey. The company typically employs just one full-time person at projects as large as 15 megawatts, although standby crews of up to four people are also deployed.
Horne understands that there will be limited employment potential if Imperial County becomes home only to the projects themselves, without capturing any manufacturing, assembly, or allied work. The planned succession of projects could keep a large number of construction workers employed, with employment falling off once the projects are completed.
“We are expecting big things,” he said. “It won’t eliminate our unemployment problem, but it will make a dent.”
With more than 20,000 folks jobless in this sparsely populated county, it will take a lot of hiring to make a dent. At least all those new projects could conceivably boost county coffers and provide badly needed services and support improved infrastructure.
“That is a sore subject,” said Horne, explaining that geothermal projects pay royalties to the federal government for their production. The county is supposed to get a share from the U.S. Minerals Management Service. That’s the same much-criticized service that drew fire for its poor oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, following the disastrous BP spill earlier this year. “The MMS can’t explain why our royalties shrink to nothing,” said Horne. “They say it has to do with net profit.”
At its peak, Imperial County was receiving about $1 million annually from these electric-generation royalties. But last year, Horne said, “They said we owed them money. We said go blow it.”
The giant Imperial Valley Solar project, to be built on federal land, could generate millions annually for the federal government, Horne estimated. “But as far as I know, we won’t get any of that.”
Meanwhile, the county will be on the hook for providing fire protection and other services to the new facilities. The California Energy Commission, which approved the permit for Tessera’s big project, ordered the developer to reach an agreement on compensation to the Imperial County Fire Department. The commission estimated that mitigating fire-protection costs to the county from the solar project would come to $600,000–$800,000 per year.