• No paved roads. Check.
• Isolated. Ideal.
• Land not suitable for farming. Perfect.
• Blistering sunshine. Jackpot.
• Asking price: $34 million. Deal.
As large-scale solar development has spooled out into Southwestern deserts, the modern-day gold rush is about more than renewable energy. Solar companies and land speculators are gobbling up scarce private land in the California deserts, driving prices up 10- to 20-fold, or even higher.
Desolate acreage that a few years ago might have sold for less than $500 an acre can now fetch as much as $20,000 an acre, according to land brokers in the region. Farmers are also getting in on the action. Alfalfa and cotton fields are being converted to solar and wind farms as the industry's big players put together mega-deals.
"It's mind-boggling what's happening," said Jean Laborde of Bakersfield, a former farmer who has been selling agricultural land in the Mojave and adjacent Colorado deserts for 45 years.
Laborde has made a killing lately. About 10 years ago, one of his clients listed 750 barren acres near the town of Mojave, but Laborde couldn't sell it. He finally bought the land himself for $350 an acre. "There's no water, the wind blows all the time," he said. "Everyone said this was a Godforsaken place."
Laborde held on to the property, then sold it a few years ago to someone who intended to build a solar power plant. Laborde won't disclose what the developer paid, but the price today would be $10,000 an acre, he said. "Turned out to be the best deal I ever made."
Real estate specialists warn that not all desert landowners will enjoy a similar payday, but try telling that to old-timers who hear about deals that have turned farmers into millionaires. A recent example is the family of alfalfa growers in Gila Bend, Ariz., who sold 3,000 acres of cropland to a consortium of investors, who then sold the land to Spanish solar giant Abengoa for $45 million.
Earlier this year Ari Swiller, who heads aLos Angeles-based renewable energy company, quietly gathered up 11,000 acres near Blythe — the largest aggregation of separate parcels the Riverside County assessor's office has seen in 15 years. Although the property hasn't been resold, Riverside County Assessor Larry W. Ward said land in the area that typically sells in "the low hundreds" per acre is now going for $2,000 to $3,000 an acre.
That part of the state offers what solar developers require: mostly flat land near transmission lines, and reliable sunshine. Depending on the size of the plant, companies may need a few hundred or a few thousand acres.
Most of the utility-scale solar farms sprouting in the desert are on federal land, which companies lease for a nominal yearly rate. But some developers prefer private property, even at high prices, because public land carries a thick sediment of bureaucracy: a snarl of federal and state environmental laws that requires time-consuming and expensive analysis before the first shovel of dirt is turned.
Private land carries few similar impediments. As long as the parcel holds no cultural resources or protected species, a solar developer can move quickly and avoid costly construction delays.
Solar companies covet private land for another reason. If a renewable energy project on public or private property compromises habitat for endangered species, the developer must buy biologically suitable private land to account for that loss. The Ivanpah Solar Project, for example, requires that Oakland-based developer BrightSource buy 7,000 acres to replace habitat for the threatened desert tortoise.
Solar companies are reluctant to speak publicly about land prices, partly out of fear that they will inflame an already overheated market. Developers try to fly beneath the real estate radar, often buying contiguous parcels under different names or through third parties to avoid igniting a land rush.
Most hire brokers or land scouts who bump along dirt roads trolling for cheap land. They, too, operate quietly and seldom disclose whom they represent.