Imperial Valley strives to be small-scale renewable energy capital
EL CENTRO, California – At a time when alternative energy and “green jobs” have become a significant talking point under the administration of Barack Obama, Imperial Valley is pushing to make it a reality.
The Valley –- which locals in this part of southern California also call Imperial County — already has 10 geothermal plants in operation with a combined capacity of around 330 megawatts. Geothermal energy, extracting power from underground heat, is a constant and sustainable form of generating electricity.
“This is going to be a great opportunity for the Imperial Valley,” which has a high unemployment rate, said Mark Gran, vice president of community relations at CalEnergy. “We’re going to be the renewable energy capital of the world.”
Potential geothermal or other renewable energy projects need to go through a lengthy approval process. But Imperial County officials have streamlined that process to help companies get permits far quicker, in particular for power plants under 50 megawatts. The state of California has more say in larger projects and has a reputation for being a stickler for due process.
“Getting anything done in California is hard,” said Imperial Valley Economic Development Corporation CEO Tim Kelley. “But it is less hard to get it done here.”
Apart from 360 days of sun a year and suitable geological conditions for geothermal power, the state has mandated that 33 percent of its electricity must come from renewable sources by 2020. Kelley says companies are falling over themselves to come to Imperial County, where they know the will be welcome.
Some 30 other renewable energy projects — geothermal, solar and wind — are in the permitting process in Imperial County. One geothermal plant has just been built and construction of another will begin next year.
“We have found the optimal way through the process,” said El Centro city manager Ruben Duran. “We recommend to companies that if they want to get approval faster they follow that path. They don’t have to follow those recommendations, but we’ve found that the system works.”
Local officials hope that renewable energy will help lower rising unemployment and help diversify the economy of this rural, largely agricultural community. But one problem Imperial County faces is transmission – getting the power to customers in major markets like San Diego, around 100 miles to the west on the Pacific coast.
“It’s one thing to produce the power, but we need to be able to deliver it to customers,” Kelly said.
The existing infrastructure can handle all of the capacity that the 30 projects currently in the pipeline would require, but not much more.
“Transmission moving forward is going to be a big concern,” Duran said.
Sue Giller, a partner at Valley Solutions Group Inc, which handles public relations for some companies in the area, including one that just opened, said far more needs to be done by California and around the United States to make renewable energy as much of a priority as it is in other countries.
“It’s amazing to me that although Germany doesn’t get much sun that the Germans lead the world in solar technology,” she said. “Something needs to be done to change that.”
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(Picture: President Barack Obama speaks about new energy in front of solar panels at the Thunderbirds Hangar at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada May 27, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed)