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DWP chief pitches solar farm plans to Owens Valley residents

January 11, 2010 | 10:51 pm

The head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power tonight told Owens Valley residents that the utility plans to explore the viability of installing massive solar arrays near Lone Pine that potentially could generate the equivalent of a million households' worth of power

S. David Freeman, general manager and the mayor’s top environmental advisor, met with community members for close to two hours inside a church hall in Bishop to provide details of the proposals, which he stressed were still in the very early stages.

The DWP is considering erecting a solar facility on Owens Lake, drained by the DWP nearly a century ago when it diverted its water supply to the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and also on DWP-owned land stretching from the lake bed north to the town of Independence.

Freeman told the crowd he made the trip in part to assuage any skepticism that Owens Valley residents may harbor against the DWP for its water grab, legal conflicts and clashes over its stewardship of its lands.

“This is a new era. We’re going to tell people what we’re going to do before we do it. That always hasn’t been the case with us,’’ said Freeman, who was peppered with questions by the mostly cordial crowd.

City utility officials hope that along with generating power for L.A., building a solar array on Owens Lake would reduce the fierce dust storms that rise from the 110-square-mile dry lake bed.

To comply with federal clean air standards, the DWP is required to control the choking dust that has plagued the Owens Valley for decades. The DWP has spent more than $500 million on the effort thus far.

The DWP is seeking state approval for an 80-acre pilot solar farm on the lake bed, which is state land, to determine if it will be effective controlling dust. If it works, DWP officials said they are interested in building a solar array on up to 50 square miles of the lake bed.

Freeman said the utility also plans to assess the potential for building separate solar arrays east of the recently restored Lower Owens River in the southern portion of Owens Valley He assured residents, however, that more than 92% of the 310,000 acres of DWP-owned land in Owens and Mono valleys will be preserved and off limits to renewable-energy projects or other development, having “the biggest not-for-sale sign you’ve ever seen.’’

Freeman said solar projects could potentially generate five gigawatts of power, roughly equivalent to 10% of the state’s current energy use. However, the DWP would be limited to transmitting only 500 megawatts of that power to Los Angeles, the maximum it accepts from any one intermittent power source.

The L.A. utility already has engaged in preliminary discussions with other utilities and power providers, including the Edison Co. and Pacific Gas & Electric, about joining in on the Owens Valley solar projects, Freeman said.

The facilities would be a critical component of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's renewable-energy initiative. Villaraigosa has vowed to halt the use of coal-burning power plants by 2020 and -- that same year -- generate at least 40% of the city’s energy from renewable resources.

Owens Valley became even more essential to the mayor’s plans after DWP’s board of commissioners last week suspended all work on the proposed "Green Path North" transmission line that would have delivered electricity from proposed solar and geothermal facilities near the Salton Sea to L.A.

-- Phil Willon from Bishop