Deep in the Mojave Desert, thousands of panels are being propped up to face the heavens.
When they are assembled in June, they will create one of the most powerful solar fields in the country.
The one-megawatt field -- enough electricity to supply about 1,000 homes -- will power 60% of Cerro Coso Community College’s main campus here, an oasis of several white buildings and exotic plants in the middle of the desert.
Cerro Coso, some renewable energy experts say, is at the forefront of things to come. They say the college, with 2,700 students and a $12-million annual budget, is proof that photovoltaic technology -- or solar power -- has emerged from the fringes and entered the mainstream. With April marking the 50th anniversary of the technology that turns sunlight into electricity, experts say solar power has become cheaper and more reliable than ever.
“We are seeing a trend nationwide, in schools and universities and colleges, looking at their energy systems, and solar is in the top three,” said Scott Sklar, president of Stella Group, a firm that helps industries use so-called clean energy. “Solar industries are just more mature than they were, so the systems look more aesthetic and perform better. There’s better technology. They’re all coming together, finally.”
Industry experts say solar power is gaining popularity as oil prices escalate and institutions -- both public and private -- are under pressure to cut costs.
Cerro Coso officials acknowledge that their solar power experiment is a costly investment but one that they hope will decrease long-term operating costs. Half the $8.9-million cost was paid by the California Energy Commission; half came from a voter-approved bond.
“It’s the one thing we could do to save operating expenses,” said Sharon Dyer, college president. “Community colleges have been having a very difficult time. We really needed to save operating costs.”
Dyer said she hopes to see a minimum of $300,000 in savings every year, which she said will be returned to academics.
Customers once paid as much as $40 per watt to install solar panels, but institutions are now finding that prices have dropped to about $8 a watt. Experts say the cost will continue to fall.
“What happens when you mature an industry is that you get these economies of scale,” Sklar said. “Because you reach that, your costs go down.”
Although additional money for education is scarce, state incentives for saving energy are not. California is one of 15 states that pay half the cost of solar power projects up to one megawatt. The taxpayer-funded incentives, coupled with an increase in production and competition among solar technology companies, have helped the market grow and forced prices down, officials say.
“The cost of electricity is continuing to go up while the cost of solar power is going down,” said Mike Palladino of WorldWater Corp., which installs solar modules across the country. “Manufacturers of solar modules that are foreseeing this trend are driving the price down. We as installers are continuing to find ways to lower costs.”
Institutions across the state are increasing their dependence on solar power. Cal State Hayward recently finished a $7-million solar installation on the roofs of four buildings, supplying 30% of campus electricity.
“The budget savings is significant and it’s a bonus that it’s also environmentally friendly,” said Kim Huggett, director of public affairs.
The city of San Diego now uses solar power in several public buildings and plans to generate as much as 50 megawatts -- enough power for about 50,000 homes -- from solar in the next decade.
California is the leading producer of solar power in the country and the third-largest in the world, behind Japan and Germany.
Still, some believe investing in solar technology is not cost-effective. They say the high cost of building a large solar field is suited only for customers willing to wait for long-term savings. Although solar power may cost customers less, said Richard Davis, a manager in Southern California Edison’s renewable contract division, it takes decades to recover the initial investment. Moreover, he said, the technology has not been in use on a large scale long enough to know how it will perform over time. “With newer technologies, you just don’t have that history, so you can assume it will run for 10 or 20 years, but we don’t have that empirical data to back that up,” Davis said. Those involved with conventional power sources say solar enthusiasts may be ahead of themselves. They say solar power is still unreliable enough that it depends on conventional power to take over when it fails -- or when there is no sun.
“The truth of the matter is, in most cases, the cost of generating electricity from solar power is still not going to be competitive with most conventional fuels,” said Jim Owens of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group for investor-owned utilities. “The sun is not always out.”
And for many institutions, Owens said, the relatively low cost of conventional power is still too good to pass up.
“While we certainly are robustly engaging in developing wind farms and solar installations, in most cases it’s not going to be competitive with coal or nuclear energy,” he said. Solar power “has come a long way, but there’s still more progress to go.”
Officials at Cerro Coso say their move to solar power is a forward-thinking one and they are willing to wait to see results.
“When you’re out here in the desert, you have to think ahead,” said Joann Handeland, college facilities director. “You have to be innovative.”