There is a new gold rush in California. Rather than extracting minerals from the ground, the new prospectors are hoping to exploit California's abundant sunshine and wind.

From the southern Cascade Mountains of far northern California to the desert along the Mexico border, utilities, start-up companies and entrepreneurs are proposing scores of large-scale solar thermal, photovoltaic and wind projects to generate electricity. So far, very little has actually gotten approved or built, but many projects are in the planning pipeline at the California Energy Commission, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and individual counties.

The projects come in response to concern over climate change and the long-term price of oil and natural gas, and in response to a state law that requires utilities to provide 20% of electricity from renewable sources by 2010, as well as Gov. Schwarzenegger's executive order demanding that one-third of electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. Currently, about 12% of the state's power comes from renewables.

While almost no one is questioning the push for renewable energy, questions have begun to arise about the projects. Large-scale solar projects require huge tracts of land – roughly 6 acres per megawatt – and solar thermal projects need approximately 1 acre-foot of water annually for every 8 to 10 megawatts. Wind farms involve windmills that are deadly for birds, especially raptors that often live and hunt in windy grasslands. The newest, most powerful windmills can interfere with military radar. Many of the projects are planned in remote desert or agricultural areas, potentially turning isolated places into major industrial centers. The projects often require new transmission lines, which can mean carving power line corridors through previously undeveloped areas. (Geothermal sources and tidal action are also potential renewable resources, but they are not being pursued aggressively so far. Hydroelectric power often is not characterized as renewable.)

The state's permitting scheme is schizophrenic. The California Energy Commission (CEC) regulates solar thermal projects, which essentially collect the sun's warmth to create steam that turns a turbine, thereby making electricity. Solar thermal projects smaller than 50 megawatts, however, fall to local government. In addition, local government has jurisdiction over wind energy and photovoltaic projects, which create electricity directly from the sun's energy. Dozens of solar projects are proposed for federal territory controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which is working with the CEC on project review. Wind and photovoltaic projects proposed by a public utility such as Sacramento Municipal Utility District or Los Angeles Department of Water and Power do not have to abide by local government regulations. Transmission lines fall within the purview of the Public Utilities Commission.

"We've never had such a long list of power plants under review," said Percy Della, a CEC spokesman. The list contains both gas-fired and alternative fuel projects.

Long the center of California's petroleum industry, Kern County appears poised to become the heart of the renewable energy business. County planners are currently reviewing five conditional use permit applications for projects that would generate from 350 megawatts to 850 MW apiece, and it has at least a dozen energy-related environmental impact reports in process. (One megawatt is enough to power approximately 700 homes.) The county last year permitted a 300 MW wind farm in the high desert proposed by a subsidiary of enXco, a company that operates wind farms around the country. It would be the largest wind farm in California. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) recently activated the first of 80 1.5 MW windmills in its Pine Tree project near Ridgecrest, and LADWP plans another 200 MW of wind development in the area.

"There is certainly potential here from an energy standpoint, even without the oil," said Kern County Planning Director Ted James, noting the county's windy mountain passes, and sunny Central Valley and high desert territories. "There is a lot of good for Kern County that will come out of it."

Still, said James, the issues are rapidly becoming challenging. The biggest issue may be protection of military installations. With its expansive desert bases, the military remains Kern County's largest employer. However, reflections off wind machines – some of which are proposed near military flight paths – can interfere with radar. The county is currently working with the CEC to determine the best practices for dealing with the conflict, as well as for minimizing avian mortality, James said.

The windmill-radar conflict has stalled proposals for large wind farms in Solano County's Montezuma Hills, southwest or Rio Vista, according to Solano County Planning Manager Mike Yankovich. Sacramento Municipal Utility District and other companies have operated wind farms in the area since the 1980s, but they have used smaller, 100 kilowatt wind machines that had no effect on radar. The proposed 1MW to 1.5MW machines cause a ghost in the radar used by the Air Force, whose base at Travis is within 10 to 15 miles of the Montezuma Hills.

Both Solano County and the CEC have identified the Montezuma Hills for wind power development. Although aesthetics and avian impacts are concerns, large-scale wind development is compatible with the area's wheat, hay and livestock operations, Yankovich said.

In Eastern San Luis Obispo County's Carrizo Plain, the interest is sun. A CEC study found the area could generate as much as 4,600 MW of solar electricity. The county has begun reviewing a proposal from Topaz Solar Farms, a subsidiary of Optisolar, for a 550 MW photovoltaic power plant, according to John McKenzie, senior environmental planner for San Luis Obispo County. A separate 250 MW photovoltaic project is also being discussed, as is a 177 MW solar thermal plant.

"There are a few unique components to these type of developments that we are dealing with. But we are also looking at the standard impacts on the ground," McKenzie said. The more obvious effects include potential loss of habitat, and water and visual impacts. But the projects also create the need for new transmission line capacities, meaning the creation of new corridors, and the photovoltaic projects' on-site energy storage presents a safety issue, McKenzie explained.

The biggest concern of both the county and residents of the sparsely populated pastoral area, though, may be the sheer size of the projects. The Topaz Solar Farm would cover 9 square miles with solar panels, McKenzie said. "The size and industrial composition of these projects would change the nature of the Carrizo Plains," he said.

Environmental advocates are monitoring the large-scale alternative power plant trend. Steve Siegel, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, emphasized the organization endorses the replacement of fossil fuel energy. But, he said, new solar and wind projects need to be located in already disturbed locations, and not in areas with viable habitat. In addition, he said, projects should be located as close as possible to power users to minimize the need for new transmission lines.  

Among the projects environmentalists are watching is the very isolated 400 MW Ivanpah solar thermal project proposed by Solar Partners/Brightsource near Interstate 15 and the Nevada border. A preliminary assessment released in December determined the project could have significant impacts on air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, land use, soils and water, traffic, aesthetics and transmission systems.

The Ivanpah project is one of dozens proposed for BLM land in the Southern California deserts. The BLM is currently working on a programmatic environmental impact statement for solar development on public lands.

A transmission corridor that could reach some projects on BLM land in Imperial County was approved by the PUC in December. The 123-mile Sunrise Powerlink project won approval after San Diego Gas & Electric agreed to steer the transmission lines away from Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Still, environmental groups and some consumer activists say the project is unnecessary and vow to sue.

Ted James, Kern County Planning Department, (661) 862-8600.
Mike Yankovich, Solano County Planning Department, (707) 784-6765.
John McKenzie, San Luis Obispo County Planning Department, (805) 781-5600.
Steve Siegel, Center for Biological Diversity, (619) 241-6409.
California Energy Commission solar projects:
Bureau of Land Management Solar Energy Development: