California has 776 solar power plants, that produced 33,670 gigawatt hours (GWh) in 2021, or 17.3% of the state’s energy, according to the California Energy Commission. Unsurprisingly, many are in the hot, brilliantly sunny deserts in the southernmost part of the Golden State. Let’s meet two of California’s biggest solar farms.
#1. Solar Star
Covering over eight miles in southern California’s Kern and Los Angeles counties in the Mojave desert, Solar Star, the solar farm that generates the most solar power in the US, produces enough energy to power almost 255,000 homes. Containing 1.7 million solar panels, this 579W project is the size of 142 football fields (or four times the size of New York’s Central Park). Its environmental impact equals taking almost 108,000 cars off the road. (Death Valley, the hottest, driest place in North America, is in the northern Mojave desert. Summer temperatures often top 120 F. In fact, 40 days of above-120 F temperatures were recorded in the summer of 1996.)
See also: California solar incentives
Solar Star uses a single-axis-tracker system, which adjusts the panels to follow the sun’s movement during the day for consistent power input, and generates over 30% more solar energy than motionless panels. Electric motors turn the panels, while a computer senses the location’s latitude. (Dual-axis trackers are even more efficient, producing over 40% more energy than stationary panels.) This video explains how it works.
Southern California Edison buys the solar energy from Solar Star, which is owned by BHE Renewables, a developer and operator of solar, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric energy, and managed by San Jose-based SunPower. Two other solar farms in southern California, Desert Sunlight and Topaz, are bigger in terms of area covered but generate less solar power, about 550W each. Solar Star is 3,200 acres, compared to Desert Sunlight, 3,800 acres at the edge of the Mojave desert, and Topaz, 4,700 acres in the Central Coast’s San Luis Obispo county. (Topaz is also owned by BHE, a Berkshire Hathaway company based in Des Moines.)
The biggest solar plant in the world when it opened in 2015, Solar Star has been eclipsed since. According to this list of the worlds biggest solar power plants, China now has the world’s biggest the Tengger Desert solar project in north-central China. It’s followed by Abu Dhabi’s Sheiwan solar project in the United Arab Emirates, by more in China, one in India and one in Mexico. Solar Star is still in the top 10 biggest.
#2. Desert Sunlight
Desert Sunlight, located 80 miles east of Palm Springs and six miles north of Desert Center, a town southeast of Joshua Tree National Park where it’s sunny over 300 days in the year, contains eight million solar panels that power about 160,000 California homes. Opened in 2015, it’s owned by NextEra Energy Resources, the world’s biggest solar and wind project operator. Both Desert Sunlight and Topaz – which opened within three months of each other – were called the “first utility-scale projects that are really of the scale of conventional coal or nuclear power plants” by California Institute of Technology applied physics professor Harry Atwater.
Desert Sunlight uses “thin-film” solar panels made of cadmium telluride, a technology which is cheaper and easier to mass-produce than silicon, but less efficient in producing energy. Its battery storage system, which helps reduce the demand on the electrical grid by storing renewable energy during peak hours when less energy is produced, was fully operational in August 2022.
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Most solar farms in the US are on public lands in Western states, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres of Federally-owned land, mainly in 12 Western states. The bureau’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which focuses on 10.8 million acres in seven California counties, tries to balance renewable energy development while saving valuable desert eco-systems, working with Native American tribes, communities, state regulators and other Federal agencies.
The Biden administration approved two more solar farms in the southern California desert in December 2021, an hour east of Palm Springs. Victory Pass and Arica, located on 2,700 acres of public land, are expected to power 132,000 California homes when completed. Owned by Clearway Energy Group, a San Francisco-based developer of solar and wind power projects in 26 states, from Hawaii, Massachusetts to, in particular, California, the two projects are under contract to sell the solar energy to four government-run energy producers, such as the Clean Power Alliance in Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Solar farms on public lands are a way to do an end-run around lawmakers’ defeat of Biden’s climate change legislation, the Build Back Better bill and its $555 billion in clean energy incentives, since they don’t require approval from the Senate or Congress.