Owens Lake as solar power plant?


Nearly a century after Los Angeles drained Owens Lake by diverting its water to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the city now hopes to generate solar energy on the dusty salt flats it left behind.

The Department of Water and Power’s board of commissioners Tuesday unanimously approved a renewable energy pilot project that would cover 616 acres of lake bed with solar arrays -- a possible precursor to a mammoth solar farm that could cover thousands of acres.

City utility officials hope that, along with generating power for L.A., the solar panels would reduce the fierce dust storms that rise from the dry lake bed. To comply with federal clean air standards, the DWP must control the dust that has plagued the Owens Valley for decades. Its efforts are part of a $500-million dust mitigation plan.

The solar project still must win approval from the California State Lands Commission, and that may be a difficult task. The commission’s executive officer Tuesday said he had serious concerns about the size of the “demonstration” project and the DWP’s plans to seek an exemption from a state environmental impact review.

Well aware of the nasty residue left by L.A.’s water grab in the early 1900s, city officials have taken special care to sell the idea to Owens Valley residents. So much water was pumped away from the valley that, afterward, many farmers and ranchers couldn’t scratch out a living.

Interim DWP General Manager S. David Freeman traveled to Inyo County before Thanksgiving to meet with local government officials, environmental groups, ranchers and other residents in an effort to sell the solar proposal.

“It’s really interesting and exciting, to say the least,” said Inyo County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio. “Generally, the county has been looking at the potential for renewable energy projects to generate economic activity and fill the county coffers, since mining has been regulated out of business.”

To help win over environmentalists, Freeman promised that the DWP would continue its program to flood portions of the lake bed with water to help control dust; the project currently uses enough water to supply 60,000 families. That shallow, ankle-deep flooding has created critical habitat for tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

“In general we support that idea. This small test project is in an area of the lake that has some of the least value for wildlife. It’s a good area to put a project, to see if you can make it work and fix the dust,” said Mike Prather of the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society.

DWP Commissioner Jonathan Parfrey, who serves as director of the Green L.A. Institute, said Tuesday he was “really enthusiastic” about the proposal but counseled DWP executives to keep Owens Valley residents well informed.

“We need to maintain good relations with the environmentalists in the eastern Sierra in order to provide them really strong assurances of the limited scope of this particular project, and an ongoing . . . conversation with them about any expanded projects,” he said.

Michael Webster, the DWP’s assistant manager of system development and procurement, told the board of commissioners that the agency has tested solar arrays in wind tunnels and determined that the structures, if properly aligned, can work as effective dust control measures.

The pilot solar project would generate an estimated 50 megawatts by 2012, or about 0.5% of L.A.’s energy needs. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to halt the use of coal-burning power plants by 2020 and -- that same year -- generate at least 40% of its energy from renewable resources.

The DWP estimates that the solar pilot project also could save 2,460 acre-feet of water a year -- worth $1.7 million -- because the solar arrays could be used to control dust in that portion of Owens Lake instead of flooding.

Because the State Lands Commission has oversight of the 100-square-mile Owens Lake, the DWP must convince the agency to lease the 616 acres for the pilot solar farm -- and, later, to grant leases for any expansion.

Paul Thayer, the state commission’s executive officer, said the agency is willing to discuss “some sort of balance of habitat restoration and solar generation on the lake bed.”

But he cautioned that a 616-acre solar farm would be among the largest in California, and DWP’s efforts to avoid an environmental review could pose a major obstacle. “We think the project is much too ambitious now, particularly for that kind of environmental review,” Thayer said, adding that a smaller project might be more acceptable.

Thayer said DWP officials estimate that Owens Lake has the potential to be developed into a large-scale solar farm: “They envision up into the gigawatt range . . . thousands of acres.”