The Bishop area’s Chamber of Commerce met Thursday at Whiskey Creek to listen to a presentation from Gene Coufal, representing the Los Angeles Department of Water Power’s (LADWP) solar array project on Owens Lake.
A pilot project has been approved to cover 616 acres of the lake area with solar panels. If the project shows signs of long-term viability, it could lead to a solar array covering thousands of acres.
At the meeting, Coufal emphasized that the project is still in the very preliminary stages. The main obstacle will be trying to get about 30 different groups on the same page, which all have vested interests in the project. These groups include government agencies, environmentalists, ranchers and other entities in the Owens Valley area. Dust mitigation on the lake bed, water conservation and investing in renewable energy sources are the three main objectives.
Since July of 1998, LADWP has been working on complying with dust mitigation measures outlined in the Memorandum of Agreement reached by the City with the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District. Coufal said that meeting deadlines for the implementation of control measures has been the priority for the past 12 years. The measures include covering the lake with shallow flooding, gravel and managed vegetation. But these strategies have resulted in a hodgepodge of short-term, expensive solutions.
Now, LADWP, the state, and agencies such as the Audubon Society and the Department of Fish & Game, want to draft a plan for a more long-term solution for the future health of the Owens Lake area.
As L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigos has announced that the City will be phasing out coal power by 2020, LADWP has been investigating renewable sources of energy. Coal power currently meets 40 percent of L.A.’s energy needs. Replacing that amount with renewable energy will be a huge task, requiring a massive area to install energy-producing technology—technology like photovoltaic solar panels.
That’s where Owens Lake comes in. The only locations that met the certain criteria for prime energy-producing land were Owens Lake and an area south of Independence and east of the river. While some people have asked why L.A. doesn’t just install solar panels on all the rooftops in the city, Coufal said the Owens Lake area has 20 percent more energy-producing potential than Los Angeles.
Proponents of the Owens Lake solar plan say the project will conserve a huge amount of water annually. The idea is that solar panels would replace shallow flooding as a dust mitigation measure. Currently, 68,000 acre feet of water are pumped into the lake, with 27,000 more acre feet scheduled to be added April 1. Researchers believe solar panels would dampen the wind enough to prevent the massive dust storms characteristic of the area. If the pilot project proves this to be true, panels could replace water to help the dust-ridden area comply with federal air quality regulations.
Before LADWP can install the project, more research must be done on the potential environmental impacts. Coufal said no matter what, the project will have impacts on the environment, so the best mitigation strategies must also be drafted.
“This is not a project where the City is trying to pull wool over somebody’s eyes,” Coufal said, referring to L.A.’s unfavorable history of controversial Owens Valley projects.
He said DWP is truly trying to gather as much information and input as possible—from researchers, Owens Valley residents, and agencies—in order to ensure the best strategy for success, benefiting both the environment and peoples’ energy needs.