Sweeping across southeastern California and western Nevada, the Mojave Desert includes one of the hottest, sunniest regions in North America, with vast stretches of windy terrain. It is a near-perfect location for solar and wind energy, and it will soon be home to some of the world’s largest renewable-energy facilities. Already, these projects are beginning to transform one of the nation’s most desolate landscapes.
In California, near the Nevada border, the first of the new mega-utility-scale solar projects is emerging amid the quartz and cactus. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, built by BrightSource, will cost an estimated $2.2 billion. It’s expected to be bigger than four Central Parks and generate 392 megawatts of power.
The site for the Ivanpah solar project was selected in part for its proximity to existing infrastructure, including gas lines and these high-power transmission lines that ultimately run to Los Angeles.
On the western edge of the Mojave, thousands of windmills dot the Tehachapi range. In spring and summer, the sun bakes the desert air until it rises into the atmosphere and cooler, denser Pacific air rushes in to take its place, most afternoons at about 20 miles per hour. Hundreds more windmills are now under construction. Each can tease three megawatts—enough to power roughly 1,000 homes—from a 45-meter sweep of sky.
Just 13 miles from the Ivanpah solar project lies Molycorp Mine, an open-pit operation that extracts several rare-earth minerals essential to the magnets used in electric motors for hybrid engines and wind turbines. Molycorp is the only supplier of rare-earth minerals in the Western hemisphere.
Crews have just started leveling old farmland for the region’s latest solar plant, to be built by Spanish company Abengoa. The land is so alkaline that little but saltbush grows there now. Both the local government and environmental groups endorse the project as a way to make constructive use of the fallow land near existing natural-gas pipelines, transmission lines, and roads.
Even as new projects take shape, the official unemployment rate in high desert towns is often as much as 17 percent; the proportion of people who are out of work or have given up looking may be as high as one in four. In Barstow, about 30 miles from the Abengoa project, close to half the town relies on some form of government assistance, by some estimates. A three-bedroom house sells for as little as $40,000.