The Green Valley — Imperial Valley’s 21st Century Gold is in Renewable Energy

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Beautiful desert landscaping sits next to the hard-to-see solar roof on top of the CB stop gas station.

Beautiful desert landscaping sits next to the hard-to-see solar roof on top of the CB stop gas station.

CALEXICO, California – In California’s perpetually heat-stricken and economically depressed Imperial Valley, a small business owner has embraced America’s “green rush.”

Damien Roddiles represents the small business owners that are trying to make a difference.

Damien Roddiles represents the small business owners that are trying to make a difference.

Demian Rodiles’ CB Stop in Calexico sits at the edge of this developing border town in the southernmost part of the state overlooking an endless desert that mocks winters and pounds residents with constant three-digit temperatures in its merciless summers. Rodiles, 34, is utilizing the valley’s intense heat —which residents often complain about— to run a more efficient and eco-friendly business. His gas station and convenience store was constructed using eco-friendly materials and is partially powered by solar energy.

“We have solar energy, we have a tank-less water heater,” said Rodiles. “We also have artificial grass so we don’t waste water.” At the outset of his energy-efficient venture, Rodiles said capital was the greatest challenge. However, he said returns on his investments were seen early on. “Working with the IID [Imperial Irrigation District] we got an instant rebate just for putting in the solar panels. If we can produce enough it goes back into the system,” Rodiles said. “I think the Imperial Valley is an untapped resource. There’s a lot of potential here that could go very far in the future.”

While Rodiles is one of the first and few to take advantage of the valley’s renewable resources, he is one of the many who recognize the potential of these resources.

That potential has been under local —and global— scrutiny for some time because of the region’s rare and ideal conditions to generate solar, wind, geothermal, and biomass energy.

A study conducted for the county by the energy design and engineering firm, Summit Blue Consulting, in 2008 concluded, “The County is fortunate to have major solar and geothermal resources, with significant wind and biomass resources as well.” However, with the exception of geothermal, the green resources have not been fully developed. Existing infrastructure and bureaucratic timelines are the main hurdles in expediting the distribution of the valley’s resources.

With its generation of 600 megawatts of geothermal energy to power roughly 126,000 homes a year, the Imperial Valley ranks second only to the Geysers region in Northern California’s Sonoma and Lake Counties. The below-sea level Imperial Valley sits just above a rich pool of underground water that measures more than 300 degrees Fahrenheit, explained Bruce Seivertson, a geographer and professor at Imperial Valley College. That geothermal source sits relatively close to the earth’s surface, making it easier and cost-efficient to harvest. “The nine ‘Known Geothermal Resource Areas’ (KGRA) are located throughout the county,” according to Summit’s feasibility report. “They total 348 thousand acres, or almost 12 percent of the county.” The county currently has 15 operating geothermal plants and eight that are in different stages of development. (See Graph) Summit estimates that those eight plants will produce an additional 552 megawatts.

Imperial Valley Renewable Energy Potential Map

And while all this geothermal energy appears impressive, it is just part of the picture. The Valley has been identified as a substantial source of mass-produced solar energy, perhaps because of the color of the sky. “Notice the deep blue sky,” Seivertson said, referring to the Southern California desert. “Louisiana has a gray sky because of the water.”  He explained that water droplets reflect sunlight and decrease the strength of sunlight when it reaches the ground. Thus, the less precipitation there is, the more solar power is generated.

Both Seivertson and the Summit report pointed out that energy transmission lines are an area of concern to prospective developers, although major metropolitan utilities wanting to tap the Valley’s solar resources have begun addressing the problem.

Andy Horne, Imperial County’s deputy chief executive officer for natural resources development details the economic impact of renewable energy in the area.

Andy Horne, Imperial County’s deputy chief executive officer for natural resources development details the economic impact of renewable energy in the area.

San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) is proposing the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink, a transmission line that would transport energy produced in the valley to San Diego, 120 miles to the west. Andy Horne, Imperial County’s deputy chief executive officer for natural resources development, says plans for the Sunrise Powerlink were approved in December 2008, but are missing one final permit to begin construction. “The permit that they’re waiting for is the ROD or record of decision,” said Horne. “They expect to have the permit sometime this month [June 2009].”

Although that transmission line would provide an incentive for developers, Horne thinks it will not be enough. “We have enough renewable energy that we would need four or five lines of the same size,” said Horne. He remains optimistic in the face of a recession and a cash-strapped county and state, hoping that federal aid will facilitate the development of the valley’s resources. “The Obama administration has taken a strong leadership role in developing what they call a smart grid,” said Horne. “We hope that the federal leadership will lead to a more organized approach in terms of permitting and constructing these vitally needed infrastructure facilities.”

The estimated tax revenues in geothermal production in the valley are more than $12 million a year, or about 25 percent of the county’s tax base. Fully developing the county’s renewable resources, Horne said, would also contribute to a formidable “green collar” workforce.

As many as 8,000 new jobs could be created over the next 10 years, according to the 2008 Summit Blue energy study said Horne. “It may be around a couple thousand of jobs over two to three years.”  And further estimates say there could be an 18 percent increase in the county’s workforce as more and more renewable energy sources are developed here. But, Horne said, to entice developers the county needs to provide a trained workforce.

In an effort to meet the future green-collar demands, several economic and job development groups, as well as private companies, are working with the local schools from kindergarten through the community college level to foster an interest in renewable energy development–and employment.  But the workforce and infrastructure issues may take a clear back seat to another issue: the $1.2 billion agricultural industry in the Imperial Valley.

“There’s tension,” said Horne, indicating a dispute between growers and the fledgling renewable resource industry. “For the farmers here, for three or four generations, the idea of changes frightens them,” said Horne.

Agribusiness is what brought life to the Valley more than a century ago and today is the major employer and the economic foundation of the Imperial Valley. But as energy concerns like SDG&E “encroach” on farmlands for energy needs, farmers are feeling the pinch on their profits.

In Heber, California large irrigation pipes (foreground) feed water to agricultural fields while the Ormat Technologies geothermal power plant transmits energy through the Southwest Powerlink to San Diego.

In Heber, California large irrigation pipes (foreground) feed water to agricultural fields while the Ormat Technologies geothermal power plant transmits energy through the Southwest Powerlink to San Diego.

More than 20 years ago, when the Central Arizona Project created the Southwest Powerlink, connecting the Imperial Valley’s geothermal bases in Heber to San Diego, long-time farmers in the valley were pressed to sell their lands to the power line projects, which caused a schism between fellow farmers and between the two industries.

Doug Westmorland, who represents a pioneering farming family in the Imperial Valley, told the Associated Press last fall, “The actual power line footprint isn’t that big, but it would be akin to having a post in the middle of a freeway,” he said. “It creates havoc.”

In the same AP report, the California Farm Bureau Federation said that because crop duster planes and tractors would have to avoid transmission lines and towers, it leaves less farmland.  In the long run, however, Horne thinks the potential renewable energy industry could surpass the Valley’s agriculture industry. “Potentially it could far outstrip agriculture as an economic force,” said Horne.

Geothermal energy is a $300 million business in the Imperial Valley. “For an industry that occupies 500 acres of land and uses one percent of the valley’s water, with the potential for growth, it could easily exceed agriculture.”

This economically depressed border region is in dire need of a lifeline, and Horne thinks the development of the Valley’s natural resources could reinvigorate the local economy. “Cycles of the economy is something the county has dealt with,” said Horne, “I can’t help but be optimistic, that this new industry will help lead us out of the recession.”

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