The high-priced sales have longtime landowners salivating. But despite the talk of a land rush, most are still waiting to score.
The gamble hasn't really paid off for Roberts' family, although now, with renewable energy developers calling, they have hope. The family is asking $7,000 an acre.
"We get a lot of tire-kickers," Roberts said. "Calls from big companies in Germany. Nothing solid yet, though."
Bobby Miller handled the $45-million transaction in Gila Bend, a farming outpost in the Sonoran Desert southwest of Phoenix. But he is dismissive of the idea that everyone with a few acres of dusty ground is going to get rich selling to big solar.
"The sale gave everyone the hope that their parcels would be like this," said Miller, who has trademarked the nickname "Dr. Dirt" and has the seen-it-all weariness of someone who has surfed dozens of boom and bust cycles. "I think they are dreaming. I can sell you lots of bulk acreage at $800 an acre."
Other real estate specialists warn that many sales collapse at the last minute as solar developers find that their projects don't pencil out, often because government incentives or power purchase agreements don't come through.
To meet the exceptionally high front-end costs, solar developers are dependent on federal loan guarantees, tax rebates and other subsidies to finance construction of multibillion-dollar solar plants. Renewable energy subsidies have been accelerated by the Obama administration, and the land-buying frenzy is in part caused by the approaching end of some federal incentives.
The complexities involved in solar projects have made for an uncertain market. Larry Cullinane, who has been selling land near Hesperia since 1975, estimated that 90% of all solar land deals fall apart in the first year, leaving the seller to start over with little more than a deposit.
"One of my clients has had close to $200 million fall out of solar contracts for various reasons," he said. "In most cases it's a financial scenario. Some of the owners get fed up with dealing with the solar developers."
Buyers, too, have reason for skepticism. As California homeowners know from painful experience, runaway real estate prices carry a risk. Prices have risen so sharply and sales have been so spotty that establishing the true value of raw desert land is difficult.
Cullinane said two of his clients, brothers in their 80s, own 640 acres they have farmed and grazed since 1940. The men bought the property for $10,000, and are today asking $3.5 million.
The plot is good for solar, but it is 21/2 miles from the nearest transmission line. Cullinane thinks the price is about double its true value — although a naive buyer or a speculator might think otherwise.
Cullinane and some of his peers in the Mojave have also spotted a niche in the solar market: desert tortoise mitigation land. Cullinane now judges land according to how suitable it would be to relocate the tortoise. Class 1 mitigation land goes for $1,200 an acre, he said, while the best-quality habitat might bring $3,000 to $5,000 an acre.
"Just in the Mojave, I've got 20,000 acres, and in Kern County I've got about 15,000 acres for potential mitigation property," Cullinane said.
If large-scale solar projects continue to proliferate in the heart of the tortoise habitat, and with companies required to find two to three acres of habitat for each acre they displace, a reasonable question becomes whether enough private land exists in the Southern California desert to cover the loss.
Less than 17% of the Mojave's 20 million acres is private property.
Janine Blaeloch, director of the Western Lands Project, calls this the elephant in the room of the tortoise mitigation program.
"Just take a look — there just isn't enough land for them to find and buy," she said. "It's the fatal flaw."
Los Angeles Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.
THE SOLAR DESERT / One in a series of occasional articles chronicling the wide-ranging effects on the West of the emerging solar-energy industry.