L.A. takes a shine to another Owens Valley product: sun

First it was silver ore that streamed to Los Angeles from the rim of the Owens Valley, then the water from the valley floor.

Now, L.A. has come back for the sunshine.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the agency responsible for turning Owens Lake into a dusty salt flat and snatching up nearly every acre from Lone Pine to Bishop, has its sights on transforming the Owens Valley into one of largest sources of solar power in America.

Interim DWP Chief S. David Freeman says the valley on the dry side of the Sierra Nevada is blessed with the “best sun in the country.” He envisions a gigantic solar array that could cover 80 square miles of dry lake bed and nearby flatlands, a sea of photovoltaic cells roughly the size of Cleveland that would generate up to 10% of all the power produced in California while simultaneously calming the region’s fierce dust storms.

Owens Valley residents crowded into a Methodist church recently to hear Freeman’s pitch. Though intrigued by the idea of turning the scarred earth at Owens Lake into a source of clean energy and local jobs, many still chafed at L.A.'s near feudal reign over the valley.

“Given our history with them, there’s skepticism,” said Mark Bagley of the Owens Valley Committee and Sierra Club, which took successful legal action to force the DWP to restore the Lower Owens River. “But it’s promising if it’s done right, the right way.”

The fast-moving project has become essential to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s promise to end the city’s use of coal-fired power by 2020, a course he vowed would be “irreversible” by the time he leaves office in three years.

Villaraigosa also wants to use the lucrative contracts for the solar array as leverage to bring renewable-energy companies and new manufacturing jobs to Los Angeles.

The grand scale of the project has raised concerns, Bagley said, in part because Freeman has acknowledged that only a portion of the electricity generated by an Owens Valley array would be transmitted to Los Angeles. The rest would be sold to other utilities around the West, with an ample share of the profits heading to the sprawling metropolis 180 miles southwest.

DWP limits the amount of power it takes from any one source to avoid the danger of becoming over-reliant on a single project. The utility is already negotiating with Edison Co., Pacific Gas & Electric and independent power producers to divvy up the rest.

With his folksy, homespun manner and trademark white cowboy hat, Freeman has traveled to Inyo County twice since November to sell the idea to ranchers, environmentalists, local politicians and other residents -- and salve any lingering animosity.

“We’ve had about 80 years of history up here where DWP did stuff and then told people after it’s done,” Freeman said during a two-hour town hall Jan. 11. “I’m trying real hard to start a new era where we bring the people . . . who live here into our thinking process before we decide to do something.”

But, first the DWP must show that a solar array can eliminate the wind-blown dust storms born on Owens Lake.

When L.A. diverted the water feeding Owens Lake and sent it rushing into the Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s, the 100-square-mile lake bed became one of the largest sources of hazardous dust in the nation. To comply with federal clean air standards, the DWP already has spent $500 million on control measures, covering close to 40 square miles of the lake bed with shallow water or fields of vegetation. Still, the airborne pollution exceeds federal limits by 10 times.

Ted Schade of the Great Basin United Air Pollution Control District said the DWP must prove that solar panels will act as physical barriers to slow the gale-force winds that sweep across the lake bed. Specifically, the array needs to slow the typically 60-mph wind to 15 mph. Preliminary wind tunnel tests conducted for the DWP, using miniature models of a solar array, indicate that the project would work, Freeman said. The utility wants the California State Lands Commission, which has oversight of the dry lake, to let it build an 80-acre pilot solar farm so it can conduct more extensive testing.

Harry Williams, a lifelong resident of the Owens Valley and member of the Paiute Tribe, praised the solar proposal but told Freeman that the DWP could not be trusted. He reminded Freeman that a regional air quality agency had to force the DWP to mitigate the Owens Lake dust, and a judge similarly ordered it to restore the Lower Owens River, which also went dry after the aqueduct was built.

“You’re a great salesman, but everybody here knows they have to get you to court to do anything,” Williams said.

Inyo County Supervisor Susan Cash complained that DWP officials still haven’t made good on an agreement to sell 75 acres near towns in the Owens Valley and for years have delayed the county’s effort to upgrade Eastern Sierra Regional Airport, located on DWP land.

In Inyo County, 98.3% of the land is owned either by the federal and state governments or the DWP.

Freeman said he wants to fix that but spent most of his recent visit preaching about renewable energy and why the Owens Valley -- which averages more than 300 sunny days a year -- is a prime location.

He also tossed out plenty of promises: Construction would create hundreds of local jobs; 92% of the DWP’s 310,000 acres in the Owens and adjacent Mono valleys would remain off-limits to development; the DWP would restore a larger portion of Owens Lake, creating mud flats, ponds and other essential wildlife habitat. And, finally, using solar panels to control the dust, instead of shallow flooding, would save water, meaning that cattle ranchers leasing DWP lands would get more water for their grazing fields.

“I want this project to benefit the people up here in every way we can think of,” he said.

Owens Valley residents are more divided about Freeman’s desire to extend the solar array onto 30 square miles of DWP land north of the lake, up to the town of Independence.

Steve McLaughlin, a local naturalist, said that land should be left undisturbed since the DWP can generate all the solar power it needs from solar panels on the dry lake.

Residents won’t support “using that [Independence] land simply as a revenue generator, to sell power all over the West,” he said.

However, cattle rancher Scott Kemp, who leases a portion of that DWP land, disagrees with McLaughlin.

“I think it’s a tremendous idea,” Kemp said of the DWP plan. “Alternative energy has got to happen.”