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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.

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Comments

BlueSouthPark Dec. 2, 2010 @ 8:43 a.m.

This is an incredibly detailed, well-done report on the Imperial Valley. Thank you for the great work. I've never stopped in any of the towns in the Valley, on going to or returning from camping trips in the mountains or desert. But the vast and amazing stretches of land and agriculture are a sight to behold. I'll stop next time and spend some money in a grocery or other business. It's great to have a glimmer of what the reality is for the residents. Luck to them all.

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landbourn Dec. 3, 2010 @ 11:46 a.m.

Interesting article, but I think you got a bit disoriented before writing the first sentence: "Driving west on I-8, down from the dry, rugged mountains..." The direction you were headed was east.

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chrisarellano Dec. 4, 2010 @ 11:25 a.m.

and your point being the dried up dog shit is on your left shoe and not the right shoe? How is this correction in this detail going to help anybody, other than the peanut gallery?

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chrisarellano Dec. 4, 2010 @ 11:22 a.m.

All these career politicians have festered this already putrid wound even further. This is a temporary fix for a long term problem. A band-aid on a broken neck if you will. If this was a plant that would create solar panels or some actual manufacturing going on, now we'd be in business, but otherwise, the fix from this is only going to be superficial and only line the pockets of the already rich. I don't think the future of renewable energy is going to be some big hunkin' plant carved out of the land, it's going to have to be on the roof tops of peoples homes. By getting everybody involved as well and doing this on the many abandoned structures that pock mark this desperate landscape. Nothing should be off the table for creating jobs and should look at everything. This is why I left here. Unemployment is much larger than that 30% they say, since they only count people that are collecting unemployment. Screw the idiot in the article that said the number is actually much lower. The only way to get a decent career in the Imperial Valley is to be a government employee, border patrol, the prison or the like. Sucking off of uncle sam's teet isn't gonna do shit for IV, just further destroy it's resourcefulness. The majority of office holders seek for nothing more than to perpetuate their position where they themselves are the only ones that have any stable jobs. People are hungry for growth and are willing to work. The labor is there, the manpower is there and the talent is there to train those lacking in skill to elevate those to the next level that is necessary to bring IV out of this economic mind funk that has been woven into the very fabric and mind set of most residents there. I think it's worth a try looking at the new emerging marijuana industry that's popping up. Now there is a bumper cash crop for you, more $ per acre than any other and besides, it's California's true #1 cash crop. Plus hemp is a viable resource that can be tapped for many industries; construction, textiles, paper, medicine, food and other areas we've yet to even scratch the surface on. There needs to be a culture of excitement and the same tired burned out faces and names with the same 19th century bucket and well mind set are not going to come up with the ideas that are going to take us to the 21st century.

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chrisarellano Dec. 4, 2010 @ 11:24 a.m.

Everybody is going to have to dig deep, hunker down, roll up them damn sleeves and do some actual work. The government cannot and will not be the solution to all your damn problems. You're going to have to save yourselves. I am disgusted with all the politicians and self appointed desert rat royalty aristocracy bullshit. Most polluted river in the western hemisphere runs through Imperial County. The Salton Sea is a result of mistakes by industrial giants in the area. If anything the Imperial Valley has proven itself to be a huge urinal for these power players that don't give a shit about working class families. You all need to be enraged and stand up and say I'm tired of this shit. If you want the things in your life you've never had before you are going to have to do the things you've never done before. Dream. Work. Imagine. Love. Think. Build towards the future, not just trying to take care of a fix this election or whatever enough to make people forget how miserable they are, because the solution is always right around the corner. The whole lot of useless politicians there, they should all be burned at the stake. They make me vomit in my mouth.

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Founder Dec. 4, 2010 @ 1:37 p.m.

Here are three things that could easily transform our entire region:

  1. We need a high speed train from the Salton Sea to SD, this would open up development and allow folks to live in energy efficient home there and also commute to SD via rapid rail.

  2. We should start the plan to clean up the Northern half of the Salton Sea; this would give SD and the entire region another place to store water, increase Real Estate value nearby and also provide a huge recreational area for water sports like Lake Mead.

  3. Install Solar Farms, both wind and photovoltaic panels to help generate electricity for our area!

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Founder Dec. 4, 2010 @ 1:42 p.m.

I also agree with the Author that the $UNRISE link will only add more money to SDG&E, instead of help lessen our dependance on foreign oil!

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Visduh Dec. 4, 2010 @ 7:32 p.m.

Something is very awry in the IV. A century ago it was touted as a great agricultural cornucopia as a result of diverting Colorado River water into irrigation. High value crops such as cotton, grains, and fruits (melons) were mentioned as coming in abundance from the area. A few years ago, I read that the number one crop raised in the IV is hay. Yes, boys and girls, we pump huge amounts of water out of the river to raise . . . hay. Doubtless, much of that is fed to cattle raised in the valley, but a large portion of it goes to the suburbs of LA, OC and San Diego to support a growing population of horses. We don't eat horses, we don't milk them, and many are ridden only occasionally. They exist because of human ego and a desire to have them around. And the valley consumes a massive amount of scarce fresh water to raise hay for them to eat. But why is hay the top crop there? It must be easier to grow and cheaper to harvest than those other crops mentioned. As a society, do we really want to use all that water to feed horses?

Solar energy is a great concept, but it should not come to the valley with a free ride and no obligation to pay taxes. If there is no benefit for the residents in having all those solar farms, there should be no farms. Tax incentives are all well and good at times, but they must never be allowed to turn into tax holidays that last forever.

Poor IV, the ultimate in flyover country, deserves better.

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crgisme Dec. 6, 2010 @ 9:57 p.m.

"High value crops such as cotton, grains, and fruits (melons) were mentioned as coming in abundance from the area."

With the exception of cotton, all of those commodities do come in abundance from the Imperial Valley. And cotton used to as well, until several imported pests came in and prices dropped, and cotton became unprofitable.

The number one commodity that comes from Imperial Valley is actually cattle. Hay is usually number two, but in 2009 it dropped down to #5. The county is one of the top five counties in the nation for the production of spinach, potatoes, cauliflower, sweet corn, broccoli and onions. It's a top producer of aquaculture and lambs, and many more commodities. http://www.co.imperial.ca.us/ag/Crop%20&%20Livestock%20Reports/Crop%20&%20Livestock%20Report%202009.pdf

Yes, a lot of hay is grown in the desert. It's a stable, year-round crop that nearly always at least breaks even. Yes, hay is easier to grow and MUCH cheaper to harvest (which is why it usually breaks even or brings at least some profit). Vegetable crops are a lot riskier, so almost everyone grows some hay to mitigate their risk a little bit.

But very little of that hay goes to the coast to feed horses. Some of it does, yes. But that is a very, very small portion of the whole. The majority of it feeds the beef cattle that are the county's #1 commodity, or the dairy cattle that are California's #1 commodity.

As far as solar energy goes, I agree with you. It should not come with a free ride and no obligation to pay taxes. It has potential, but there are lots of other renewable energy sources with potential in Imperial Valley, too.

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nan shartel Dec. 7, 2010 @ 1:11 p.m.

give those guys back their WATER!!!!!!! :=(

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