solar owens lake – mammoth // building nothing out of something

solar owens lake

In the comments at DPR-Barcelona, David Maisel points us to a pair of news articles on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s latest plan for the Owens Lake playa:

The Department of Water and Power’s board of commissioners [in December] unanimously approved a renewable energy pilot project that would cover 616 acres of lake bed with solar arrays — a possible precursor to a mammoth solar farm that could cover thousands of acres.  City utility officials hope that, along with generating power for L.A., the solar panels would reduce the fierce dust storms that rise from the dry lake bed. To comply with federal clean air standards, the DWP must control the dust that has plagued the Owens Valley for decades. Its efforts are part of a $500-million dust mitigation plan…

To help win over environmentalists, Freeman promised that the DWP would continue its program to flood portions of the lake bed with water to help control dust; the project currently uses enough water to supply 60,000 families. That shallow, ankle-deep flooding has created critical habitat for tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds…

The pilot solar project would generate an estimated 50 megawatts by 2012, or about 0.5% of L.A.’s energy needs. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has vowed to halt the use of coal-burning power plants by 2020 and — that same year — generate at least 40% of its energy from renewable resources.  The DWP estimates that the solar pilot project also could save 2,460 acre-feet of water a year — worth $1.7 million — because the solar arrays could be used to control dust in that portion of Owens Lake instead of flooding.

Read the full article at the LA Times, and a second article from Reuters.  Interestingly, the interim chief of the DWP describes the array — which promises potential jobs and income for the Valley — as a way to “make peace” with the Valley, as he acknowledges that “eighty years ago, [Los Angeles] stole the [Valley's] water”.

Update: It is worth reading both Barry Lehrman’s initial reaction to the solar farm proposal last December, and his more recent and more skeptical take, in the comments below.

19 Responses to “solar owens lake”

  1. while my initial reaction to the solar farm proposal was gung-ho approval, I’m starting to have some doubts about the viability of the such a project.

    First, there are daunting geotechnical issues to building out on the playa as witnessed in the efforts to deploy the dust control system.

    second, (though maybe the most salient legal issue) is protecting the snowy plover’s nesting habitat. Significant effort was expended during the engineering of the dust control system to avoid creating perches for predatory birds around the plover. So every pump enclosure, power line tower, stand pipe, and vertical element was studied and designed to prevent ravens and raptors from using them to raid the plover nests. Somewhere in the technical documentation for the MOA there is a height limit. A solar farm will certainly create perches for the opportunistic predators that will then impact the nests of the plover.

    Third, the playa can and does flood – so what elevation will they set the panels to avoid being inundated?

    Forth, the playa is and still will be a dusty place even with the dust control system – keeping the panels clean will take lots of clean non-salinated water. There are two sources of water out on the playa – the aqueduct and ground water. On the Keeler side, the water is non-potable because of arsenic – this may or may not be useable for washing panels.

  2. rholmes says:

    Well said — the point about plover predators being particularly interesting, as it is not at all obvious.

    The comments at one of those articles make similar points, about the obvious oddity of a solar farm in a wet, saline environment, but you’ve said it much better than they did.

    As I’m currently engrossed in an environmental history of the Everglades — which have seen countless fool-hardy proposals for economic uses of wetlands, from both public and private entities — I’m more and more inclined to regard these sorts of proposals by government entities with a sort of default skepticism, which probably wasn’t obvious from the quick post above.

  3. Funny that you are now looking at the Everglades. Fall 2004, I was in a studio with Chris Reed (of Stoss) playing with the ‘Miami Lakes’ where the Everglades hit sprawling Metro-Dade. While this was my worst project from grad school (my thesis research was too engrossing), it was a useful studio to have been in. I’ll try to pull together a post or two about the everglades in a few weeks.

  4. faslanyc says:

    wouldn’t the solar array shade the entire playa, making it impossible for the insects that breed there now and feed the birds to live? Would it indirectly (as well as directly) kill off whatever does still live there (or rather, make it tolerable only to organisms not needing direct sunlight?)

  5. The playa is 108 square miles. My understanding is that the footprint of solar farm is to be 616 acres = .9625 square miles – which doesn’t even occupy 1% of the playa (not 616 acres of solar panels). Plus, most solar arrays give about 40% land coverage. Typically there is a service road between each row that also prevents each array shading others.

    The brine flies are eating algae (which need sunlight to grow). So yes, a solar farm will reduce the ecological productivity of the playa.

    616 acres of solar panels is almost 27m square feet. A high-end array can produce 20 watts per square foot. That much silicon would produce 560mW peak! that’s huge. even at 40% coverage this would be 200megawatts. So I’m guessing that the efficiency of the panels they are using is lower and that the site coverage will be less to hit the 50mW figure (though this can also be the average, not the peak output).

    So if you haven’t figured out yet, I’m not just an Owens Lake/LAA geek, but a renewable energy geek too.

  6. faslanyc says:

    thanks barry. sounds like there is some operating room there…

    this gets into lots of good details; like- is the plover population the main one driving policy, or are their other birds or animals? how big is their habitat, and how seasonal? Maybe introducing shaded zones could bring some kind of diversity? and what of the footings/piles needed out there since you mention the structural instability of the soil? Is there an opportunity there to “float” them in the sand (say, if they’re all linked so they won’t blow over- like setting up a tent with only tent stakes)?

    I apologize for the inundation, but if you happend to be in the know that would be cool to read about.

  7. the snowy plover is the ONLY keystone species listed in the MOA that launched the entire dust control project. No other species or ecological habitat is mentioned at all, beyond a brief consideration for planting vegetation to control the dust.

    I don’t have the MOA document with me, but there is a paragraph about requiring ‘ramps’ every couple of hundred feet or so to allow the plover to cross any berms or dykes. Their habitat is most of the playa that isn’t inundated if I recall. The person who can answer with details of the bird’s habitat is Mike Prather of Owens Valley Committee.

    However in the implementation of the shallow flooding, the recycled water is kept intentionally saline to prevent opportunistic vegetation from growing. (most of the water pumped through the bubblers is recycled, only a fraction is water from the aqueduct to make up for evaporation.)

    The lacustrial soils of playa are a mix of clays and precipitated salt – including areas of ‘quick’ clay that liquefy when disturbed. The CDM presentation that I linked to on my blog reviews some of the geotechnical issues.

    Most of the footings/equipment pads on the lake are trucked in fill/gravel that is compacted (with some excavation of unstable soils as needed). The soil out on the playa isn’t very useful for much beyond waterproofing.

    Maybe ‘floating’ footings could be utilized.

  8. I’m interested in exploring process related to this question. What about an interventionist approach that is more openly aware of the unpredictability of its effects? Based on what we have seen thus far in Owens Lake and the Everglades (many unforeseen systemic surprises from our interventions),I think an approach using small(and shall we say humble),incremental experimental test plots to test multiple variables without worry of large scale change is key to throwing anything new into that system.

    Barry: I share the interests with the above readers and would also love to see stuff from the Everglades studio.

    • rholmes says:

      I like this a lot: it reminds me of the thoughts that Berger’s wetland experiment triggered, but rather than testing design in a laboratory, you’d be designing a landscape that is running an experiment on itself, to determine its own future. That might only be reasonable in a place that is already dealing with significant problems — like Owens Lake — where you consequently aren’t so worried about creating new (small) failures, but it’s a pretty exciting thought, essentially evolutionary computation translated into landscape architecture.

    • Stephen says:

      Yeah, definitely agree as well. What’s nice about this is that it recognizes that the condition described in your recent post: that the current landscape, and the sorts of ecologies it has the potential to support, has been altered, and because of this, attempting to re-construct the previous ecology will probably be a failure leading to cyclical crisis response. It’s a way of accepting that the right ecology for a specific context might not be one we would expect or be familiar with, and seeks to discover a more appropriate solution through an open-ended, empirical versioning process.

      This casts the introduction of a solar system in a different light from the arguments in opposition to it by preservationists , as it just becomes one more variable in an already altered environment. Instead of futilely attempting to rebalance ecologies in as close an approximation to their pre-anthropogenic state as possible, it could free landscape architects to develop the most productive landscape possible – in this case, likely focused on creating the best possible habitat for the Snowy Plover, meshed with the local and regional economic and infrastructural demands.

    • faslanyc says:

      Is there any chance Infranet/Mason White is reading this? Their WPA 2 work is directly related, and that project was the most interesting of that batch, in my opinion…

  9. [...] landscape architecture, water ·Tagged Everglades restoration, Miami, Stoss As brought up here, there are several parallels between Owens Lake and the Florida Everglades as site where human [...]

  10. Exactly. I was thinking of your Berger post as well.

  11. Using landscape as a testing site for real experiments is a provocative an controversial topic. If the site -Owens Lake- is just starting to transform with stunning speed, as Robin Blake comments in our blog, it may be unpredictable how the solar farm will affect vegetation and ecosystem in general terms.

    It’s difficult to predict if it will work out. And even if Barry pointed that “The playa is 108 square miles. My understanding is that the footprint of solar farm is to be 616 acres = .9625 square miles – which doesn’t even occupy 1% of the playa (not 616 acres of solar panels).” We can read here:
    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/dec/02/local/la-me-owenslake2-2009dec02

    …that this first experiment is “a possible precursor to a mammoth solar farm that could cover thousands of acres.” Besides the size of the solar farm, we were also wondering how it may be able to solve the dust problems. That’s why we’re a bit skeptical with this issue.

    Barry, we also (as F.A.D.) would love to know more about the Everglades studio. We’ll be looking forward more updates.

  12. [...] As we’ve been discussing parallels between Owens Lake and the Everglades, both here and at F.A.D., Lehrman has also posted a project for the Miami Lakes Belt, “Emergent [...]

  13. [...] the way it was transformed by diversing its water through the aqueduct and the future plans for a solar farm on the Owens Lake Playa has driven us to make a reflection around these [...]