One of the world’s biggest solar power collectors is being built next to the tiny town of Nipton, Calif., which is ironic because Nipton is the closet thing to an off-grid town – with 85 per cent of its energy coming from a set of solar panels installed by one of its 60 residents.
Gerald Freeman unlocks the gate to the small power plant and goes inside. Three rows of solar collectors, elevated on troughs that track the sun’s arc like sunflowers, afford a glimpse of California’s possible energy future.
This facility and a smaller version across the road produce almost all of the power required by Nipton’s 60 residents, its general store and motel.
Freeman, a Caltech-trained geologist and one-time gold mine owner, understood when he bought this former ghost town near the Nevada border that being off the grid didn’t have to mean going without power.
He contracted with a Bay Area company to install solar arrays on two plots of land. The town has a 20-year agreement to buy its power at a below-market rate.
Nipton backs up to the sprawling Mojave National Preserve, serving as a portal and information station for the 6 million-acre chunk of the Mojave Desert managed by the National Park Service. Accommodations and facilities in Nipton cater to visitors who come to experience the desert, as well as individuals and groups associated with the preserve and environmental interests.
Nipton seems a world away. Visitors trade city lights, urban bustle and traffic noise for star-strewn night skies, tranquility born of isolation and desert silence broken only by coyote calls or an occasional rumbling train.
Nipton capitalizes on its history. Located in an area with active mining in the late 1800s, Nipton began life in 1900 as a mining claim near a wagon crossroads. Soon a camp formed called Nippeno, after a spot in Pennsylvania. It grew into a small community renamed Nipton when it was chosen in 1905 as a watering spot along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake City Railroad that pushed across the Mojave. The railroad was later bought out by Union Pacific.
The old steam trains stopped in Nipton to take on water. They let a few passengers on and off, unloaded freight and loaded ore and livestock. Nipton became a gathering spot for a scattered population of miners, ranchers, cowhands and prospectors, as well as engineers, train crews and travelers passing through the area. The need for overnight accommodations led to the creation of the small, Spanish colonial-style Hotel Nipton, constructed of adobe beside the tracks about 1910. The little roadside community offered a few small businesses, a post office and a one-room school.
When diesel replaced steam power for locomotives, the trains no longer needed watering stops like Nipton. The town clung to life as a desert social center and a place where a few trains still paused for freight and passenger traffic. A private owner kept the town going from 1913 until he died in 1947. Decades of dormancy followed, with the property changing hands several times.
Nipton got a new lease on life when the Freeman family acquired ownership in 1984. The new owners worked hard to restore some historic structures, clean up the property and promoteNipton as a destination in the desert.
It was their enterprise that got the power plant up and running.
Projects like these make do with scant financing opportunities and little support from the federal government.
The Obama administration’s solar-power initiative has fast-tracked large-scale plants, fueled by low-interest, government-guaranteed loans that cover up to 80% of construction costs. In all, the federal government has paid out more than $16 billion for renewable-energy projects.
Those large-scale projects are financially efficient for developers, but their size creates transmission inefficiencies and higher costs for ratepayers.
Smaller alternatives, from rooftop solar to small- and medium-sized plants, can do the opposite.
Collectively, modest-sized projects could provide an enormous electricity boost — and do so for less cost to consumers and less environmental damage to the desert areas where most are located, say advocates of small-scale solar power.
Recent studies project that California could derive a substantial percentage of its energy needs from rooftop solar installations, whether on suburban homes or city roofs or atop big-box stores.
‘The wrong choice’
Janine Blaeloch, director of the nonprofit Western Lands Project, said smaller plants were never on the table when the federal solar policy was conceived early in President Obama’s first term.
Utilities and solar developers wanted big plants, so that’s what’s sprouting in Western deserts, she said.
“There was a pivot point when they could have gone to the less-damaging alternative,” Blaeloch said, referring to both federal officials and environmental groups that have supported large-scale solar projects.
“There’s no question that it was a matter of choice, and it was the wrong choice.”
Built in far-flung locations where there is plenty of open land, large-scale plants require utilities to put up extensive transmission lines to connect to the grid.
Utilities charge ratepayers for every dollar spent building transmission lines, for which the state of California guarantees utilities an annual return of 11% for 40 years.
By comparison, small-scale plants can be built near population centers and provide power directly to consumers, reducing the demand for electricity from the grid.
Rooftop solar goes one step further.
It not only cuts demand from the grid, but also can allow homeowners and businesses to sell back excess power.
Falling start-up costs also have brought solar power within reach for many homeowners and small businesses.
In the last six years, the cost in Los Angeles to install a medium-sized solar system — between 50 kilowatts and 1 megawatt — has fallen by 55%, said J.R. DeShazo, an environmental economist at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs.
But the Nipton experience can only hep to encourage others. The general store serves as a camping supply depot, gift shop with handcrafted items and information center for books and maps about the desert and nearby Mojave National Preserve. Next door is the Whistle Stop Cafe. The schoolhouse that served Nipton’s children from kindergarten through eighth grade from 1930 to 1960 has been repurposed as a conference and education center popular for regional meetings. A municipal solar generating system, which opened in 2010, provides 85 percent of Nipton’s electrical power with room for expansion.
Barely more than a burned-out shell when restoration began, the historic Hotel Nipton serves as a cozy five-room bed-and-breakfast inn with double or twin beds and a central sitting room for reading, games and conversing. Even its long-neglected cactus and rock garden has been brought back to life. Guests also find lodging in five large tent cabins. Nearby, two restored residences house mostly professionals engaged in local projects. An RV park with amenities welcomes campers and a few semi-permanent residents. Guests in Nipton have access to more facilities, including hot tubs, picnic areas, barbecue grills and Internet and wireless connections. Call 760-856-2335 for reservations and details.
However Nipton’s brave experiment is unlikely to be widely repeated any time soon.,
Even though prices are coming down, Ray Brady, manager of the federal Bureau of Land Management’s renewable-energy program, said he has seen little interest in smaller-scale projects.
The agency has policies that provide incentives for developers to build smaller solar plants on federal land, including exempting projects from costly and time-consuming environmental reviews.
Back in Nipton, Gerald Freeman has already seen glimmers of that possibility.
The town is just a few miles from Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc.’s 3,500-acre power plant, visible across Interstate 15.
When the $2.2-billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System is completed, it will be the largest solar-thermal power plant in the world, producing 370 megawatts of electricity, enough to power roughly 140,000 homes.
If things go according to plan, Nipton could eventually produce as much as 1 megawatt of power, which Freeman hopes to sell to Southern California Edison, which in turn provides electricity that helps run a small portion of the sprawling Ivanpah facility.
It’s even possible that Nipton could provide some power to its giant solar-power neighbor.
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