I was in an aisle seat so it was only by coincidence that I happened to look out of the window of my flight back from San Antonio on Sunday and see BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar project – three 459-foot-tall solar towers, surrounded by 300,000 reflecting mirrors or heliostats, as seen here in a picture from the company website.
At 30,000 feet or so, one can’t actually see the towers and mirrors. Located in eastern San Bernardino County, the project looks more like three connected gray discs with dark spots in the center, but I knew immediately, there was nothing else on earth it could be. I could see bright white patches, where the sun’s glare reflected off the mirrors.
I leaned over the person in the window seat to get a better look, babbling away about exactly what the project is — how the mirrors reflect light onto the towers to boil liquid, create steam and drive a turbine – then dove into my purse to get my cell phone to snap a picture.
Unfortunately by the time I got the phone out and turned on, Ivanpah had disappeared beneath the plane’s wing, but the fact that it was visible from that high up triggered a stream of thoughts. I am always a bit wide-eyed about the amazing size and technology of the project, but what I also saw was how isolated it is — something obviously man-made in a stretch of otherwise dusty, light brown desert – and how far the electricity generated by the plant will have to travel to get to homes and businesses to the east.
Four days earlier, flying into San Antonio for an investigative journalism conference, I had looked down, considerably closer to the ground, and saw the roofs of the city, hundreds of roofs, gabled on houses and flat on commercial buildings, and all of them bare.
Not a solar panel in sight and I was trying to figure out why. A recent article in the San Antonio Express-News estimates about 1,000 of CPS Energy’s 728,000 customers are eligible for the city-owned utility’s net metering program — meaning they have solar on their roofs.
But, when I flew home after the conference, through Denver and then, after flying over Ivanpah, to Ontario, I wasn’t seeing many more solar roofs anywhere else. A few commercial buildings near Ontario International Airport had rooftop installations, but overall, what I saw in city after city was a lot of open space that could be generating solar power and, obviously, enormous opportunity for solar installers and homeowners who want to cut their energy bills.
Opponents of large-scale solar projects often say we should be putting more solar on roofs, but clearly, that isn’t happening at a rate that can produce the amount of power pumped out by a project the size of Ivanpah — even taking into account the electrons lost in transmission.
What seems to be the best impetus for getting homeowners and businesses to consider solar, beyond personal politics, is its economic advantages. In the Coachella Valley, most installers will tell you, the potential for getting out from under the region’s high electric bills is solar’s strongest selling point.
President Barack Obama made just that point in his speech Tuesday, outlining his plan to fight global warming. Answering the naysayers who routinely attack renewable energy and other efforts to cut carbon emissions as overly expensive job killers, the president noted that more than 500 businesses had recently signed a Climate Declaration, calling action on climate change “one of the great economic opportunities of the 21st century.”
“Walmart is working to cut its carbon pollution by 20 percent and transition completely to renewable energy,” the president said. “Walmart deserves a cheer for that. But think about it. Would the biggest company, the biggest retailer in America — would they really do that if it weren’t good for business, if it weren’t good for their shareholders?”
Warnings of rising utility bills if carbon emissions from coal-fired plants are capped may not have the personal or political punch fossil fuel advocates expect. I mean, when’s the last time you heard of a utility dropping its electric rates? Rate increases may vary, and municipal utilities, such as the Imperial Irrigation District, traditionally have lower rates than private companies such as Southern California Edison.
But, while not on quite the same level as death and taxes, electric rates almost inevitably go up, but solar prices are only going down. Utilities and fossil fuel advocates know this.
Which has me thinking again about all those empty roofs. What if capping carbon emissions from coal-fired plants did lead to higher electric bills?
Maybe that would be the push more people across the country will need to go solar.