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Is there room in Inyo for big solar?

June 23, 2011

Independence resident and local solar power expert Jim Stroh will be giving a lecture on Saturday to discuss why solar projects, like this one in Death Valley, require huge tracts of land to be efficient. Photo by Jim Stroh

In a county where only 2 percent of the land is owned by private citizens, finding a large parcel of property for development can be a difficult task.
Solar Energy has been a hot topic in Inyo County recently, with several large-scale, commercial solar “power plants” being planned or proposed. For example, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed a solar facility in Inyo County that would be located on 3,100 acres of its land north of the Owens Dry Lake. Inyo County also recently revised is General Plan to include a section addressing commercial solar power or photovoltaic installations.
Planners and various officials have noted that one question more than any other seems to crop up around the discussion of building large-scale solar projects: Why do big solar projects have to be so big and take up so much land?
With that in mind, Independence resident, teacher and local solar power expert Jim Stroh met with the Inyo County Board of Supervisors earlier this month and will be holding another meeting this weekend to discuss why solar projects require so much space to gather energy effectively.
The presentation is free and open to the public, and will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 25 at the Owens Valley School Multi-Purpose Room, 202 S. Clay St., Independence.
According to Stroh, the efficiency of solar arrays is dependent on how many hours a day the sun is up and the position of the sun, which changes as the year progresses, and on atmospheric conditions, which change daily.
Though the mountains to the east and west of the Owens Valley block the sun in the early morning and late evening, reducing the number of solar hours each day (the valley sees between 9.5 and 15.5 hours of sunlight a day, depending on the season), Stroh said the Owens Valley has ideal atmospheric conditions, with few cloudy days and a generally low particulate level in the air.
The problem local landowners, businesses and even schools run into when planning a solar project, he explained, is finding enough room on their property to gather enough energy to make the project cost-effective.
“The sun never gets directly overhead here, and solar collectors cast shadows,” Stroh said, explaining that, to space solar panels far enough away from one another to prevent shadows from one solar panel from blocking the sun from another, a developer will need between two-and-a-half to three times more area than will actually be generating energy.
“Big solar projects need big area,” Stroh said. “I’ve tried to cover why these installations have to be so big.”
At Saturday’s presentation, Stroh will also discuss some of the creative alternatives that have been suggested, such as laying solar panels over the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and why those ideas may or may not work.
In the future, Stroh said he hopes to give another presentation outlining some of the out-of-the-box ideas for solar projects that provide more aesthetic solar plants and allow the land the solar arrays take up to serve other functions, and how some of those ideas may be put to use in the Owens Valley.
For more information on the presentation, call the Eastern California Museum, (760) 878-0258.

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