Another Day, Another U.S. Solar Record: 5 Great Facts About the Desert Sunlight Project

, Senior energy analyst | February 11, 2015, 4:04 pm EDT
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Solar power is breaking records all the time. This week saw another one, with the dedication of a ginormous solar project in California. Here are 5 great facts about the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm to sprinkle into the conversation the next time you’re chatting at the bus stop or a cocktail party.

Five great facts

Sec. Jewell gets an up-close look. (Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior)

Sec. Jewell gets an up-close look. (Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, via Flickr)

The Desert Sunlight project, located east of Palm Springs, actually started generating in December, but got dedicated earlier this week, with the help of U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

And it’s a project that was worth the trip for her:

  1. It’s powerful. As solar goes, this is a big one: at 550 megawatts (MW), Desert Sunlight is the largest solar project on public lands, and expected to produce some 160,000 California homes’ worth of electricity.
  2. It’s definitely powerful. The project’s 550 MW total means that it’s also the largest solar project in the U.S., tied with one that went online in November.
  3. It’s photovoltaic. Unlike another recent solar recordbreaker, one that uses the sun to make electricity by producing steam, Desert Sunlight uses photovoltaic (PV) modules and directly converts light to electricity, same as the panels that can be put on your roof.
  4. It’s a whole lot o’ panels. The project involves more than 8 million solar panels across 3,600 acres.
  5. California is heading to 33% renewables, and beyond. Desert Sunlight will be feeding into the California electricity system, helping two of the state’s big utilities meet the California renewables portfolio standard of 33% by 2020. And the state is already talking about what 50% renewable energy might look like.

What’s next

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, via Flickr

Credit: U.S. Department of the Interior, via Flickr

California is working to balance our need for clean energy with our need to preserve our beautiful landscapes—in this case, as a colleague has said, to figure out how to make “smart and sustainable new investments in desert areas that have incredible generation potential.”

As our friends at the Wilderness Society have put it, projects like Desert Sunlight can and should help us figure out how to “[get] energy right in the California Desert,” and beyond.

As for what’s next: Desert Sunlight appears tied for largest solar plant in the world, not just the U.S… for the moment. But, in the über fast-paced world of solar growth, tomorrow may be another story. Stay tuned.

And in the meantime, spread the word at the bus stop: Another day, another solar record to celebrate.


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  • Da_One41

    If a new 3,600 acre strip mine went into the same desert it would be denied immediatly and decried by the environmentalist as an outrage because it would impact Desert Tortoise habitat. Yet clear 3,600 acres in the same area for solar panels? Yeah, they scream. I wonder where they think the material to build the solar panels in the first place comes from? These green solar farms are not as green as the greens believe.

    • Tom Bayley

      Careful with the black and white generalisations. If you want people to think carefully you need to include yourself.

      “Some activists fought the
      project on grounds that it would endanger protected species including
      the San Joaquin kit fox, California tiger salamander, California
      red-legged frog, bald eagle and others.”

      • ucsjrogers

        Da_One and Tom, thank you both. Clearly project planning and approval processes for renewable energy projects should involve a thorough assessment of risks and rewards, costs and benefits, and you can bet that projects such as these do. Just like other energy projects — or strip mines — would have to. Deserts can encompass important habitat, and that has to be taken into account.

        But projects like these have the potential to contribute to fixing what ails precious landscapes, flora, and fauna in terms of climate impacts; it’s a lot harder to imagine saying that about a strip mine. And that needs to be taken into account, too.



  • Richard Solomon

    THANKS for sharing such encouraging news! Let’s hope that Calif continues to make smart, safe use of its deserts to help those of us who live in the cities where we need clean and renewable energy. As UCS members who live in Calif we should be encouraging our reps in Sacramento to do more of this kind of thing.

    • ucsjrogers

      Thanks for the encouragement, Richard.

      With the package of bills introduced this week in California’s senate, your state is moving toward the next leap forward on climate and energy, and that’s exciting to see. And yes, progress on the renewables front will continue to need to take into account pressures on lands. That’s why the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) effort (see the first link under “What’s next” above) is worth watching. It’s great to see California moving ahead on both fronts.