Construction has begun on Antelope Valley Solar Project, the largest solar PV project in the world - at 579 megawatts.
Buffet's MidAmerican Solar bought the project from SunPower for $2 billion in January, and SunPower is developing it using its own panels. 650 people will be employed to build the project on 3200 acres, and in 2015 it will begin providing power to 400,000 homes.
It is one of several large solar projects being built in the area of Lancaster, the first city to require solar on all new homes.
Unlike some solar projects which have been given the go-ahead even though they are on sensitive lands, the Sierra Club praises this one for environmentally responsible development. From the outset, it was planned and sited in a way that protects native plants and wildlife, they say.
Antelope is being built on former agricultural lands that were planted with alfalfa and other crops that require heavy irrigation. Since it is located on disturbed land there are no threatened or endangered species.
Because it is near existing transmission lines, including a major
substation, no new infrastructure is necessary.
"The developers listened to our concerns about the local lands and wildlife in the Antelope Valley and incorporated them into the planning and siting for the project," says Georgette Theotig of
the Sierra Club Kern-Kaweah Chapter. "The proposal came out stronger for it, and we were proud to endorse the project and testify on its behalf during the approval process. Solar projects like this show it's possible to move forward with larger clean energy projects and respect conservation values at the same time."
Some locals have criticized the project however because it creates a feeling of industrialization in the rural area.
SunPower's Oasis® Power Plant is a modular solar technology that can be rapidly deployed for utility-scale projects that also minimizes land use. Its high-efficiency solar panels are mounted on trackers that follow the sun during the day, increasing energy capture up to 25%.
In January, MidAmerican Solar purchased the project for $2 billion. It also owns the world's second-biggest solar plant - the 550 MW Topaz Solar Farm under development in California. And it has a 49% stake in the 290 MW Agua Caliente solar project in Arizona.
Since it began acquiring renewable energy projects last year, MidAmerican Renewables has quickly grown to an 1830 megawatt (MW) portfolio in wind, geothermal, solar and hydro. When current wind projects are completed, it will have 2284 MW in that sector alone, making it the largest owner of US wind farms by an investor-owned utility. The utility also recently agreed to retire seven old coal plants.
Dust Is An Issue
Antelope Valley also has an approved re-vegetation plan to control dust, which is an emerging concern.
Antelope Valley Solar Project is different from another nearby - Antelope Valley Solar Ranch, under construction by First Solar. Los Angeles County recently halted the project because of health issues caused by dust.
Building a solar plant in the desert requires considerable scraping and clearing to make way for thousands of acres of solar panels. That kicks up dust, which can cause "Valley fever" when people working at the site or living nearby breathe in fungal spores that are released when desert soils are disturbed.
Agricultural workers have long contracted this illness when working in the desert, but the risk is rising with the enormous solar projects being built now. About half the people that get infected develop flu-like symptoms. Wearing a respirator can prevent it, but workers often take it off when working in such hot conditions.