Huge Wind Farms Coming to Mojave Desert

California desert known for solar potential also has proven wind resource.

1 min read
Huge Wind Farms Coming to Mojave Desert

On the east coast, any mention of a "decade-long battle over a large wind farm" points immediately to Cape Wind and the contentious beginnings of the country's offshore wind energy industry. In California, though, the phrase brings to mind another project in perhaps an equally unlikely spot, the Alta Wind Energy Center in the Mojave Desert foothills.

According to the LA Times, project developer Terra-Gen will break ground today on the project in the Tehachapi Pass in Kern County, after nearly 10 years of permitting, bankrupted companies and concerns over noise and the usual NIMBY-related issues. Alta Wind Energy Center, or AWEC, will consist of a number of sub-projects, but if all are eventually completed it could generate as much as 3,000 megawatts of power. Even just the initial five projects, with 720 MW, could be enough to provide electricity to 200,000 homes.

With hundreds of turbines soon to be spinning in the Mojave, the desert is rapidly becoming the epicenter of renewable energy in the United States. Some areas of the Mojave receive more than twice as much solar radiation as elsewhere in the country, and there are already hundreds of megawatts of installed solar capacity. Some of the biggest proposed solar plants are also sited in the area, like the 300-MW Ivanpah Solar plant. The Mojave Solar Park, when completed in 2011, will become the world's largest solar installation at 553 MW.

As always, placement of large renewable power generating stations in the middle of the desert brings up questions of storage and transmission. Many of the projects, though, are being built near existing transmission infrastructure, and their near-term completion dates suggest the region is already well-equipped to bring the power to customers.

(Image via Alta Wind Energy Center)

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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