A new solar plan rises from the dust


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    Owens Lake in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. Shallow flooding has created habitat for shorebirds.

    - Jennifer Collins

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    Near Owens Lake

    - Jennifer Collins

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    Near Owens Lake

    - Jennifer Collins

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    A sign on the edge of Owens Lake in Keeler, a community on the edge of the lake bed.

    - Jennifer Collins

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    Botanist Mark Bagley outside his home in Bishop, Calif., about 60 miles north of Owens Lake.

    - Jennifer Collins

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: Across the country, utilities are looking to retire their dirty coal-fired power plants. The city of Los Angeles wants to replace the power it gets from coal -- at least partly -- with power from the sun. The city's utility plans to install solar panels on a dry lake bed in the shadow of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains. And that may just solve another problem plaguing the area. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Jennifer Collins reports.


Jennifer Collins: Back in the early 1900s, Los Angeles diverted the water that would have gone to Owens Lake so the city could keep growing. In no time, the lake evaporated. Wind picked at its dry crust and touched off huge dust storms that still persist in this scenic valley below Mount Whitney.

Kathleen New runs the nearby Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce:

Kathleen New: You know, it's kind of like living on a postcard with a lot of dust.

That dust has been shown to cause respiratory problems and contain arsenic. Over the past 10 years, Los Angeles spent more than half a billion dollars to tamp it down. These days, the city partially floods the lake.

David Freeman heads LA's municipal utility:

David Freeman: Well right now, we are wasting nearly enough water to serve the whole city of Long Beach.

Freeman wants to use that water. So he's looking to install solar panels on the lake bed. The panels would be positioned at an angle to block the wind and keep the dust down. Freeman says the electricity produced by those panels would go to the city. After all, the region averages more than 300 sunny days a year.

Freeman: So you'd have a double win. You'd create solar power and control the dust without wasting water.

Freeman is also thinking about developing even larger solar projects on surrounding land -- enough to supply 10 percent of the state's energy needs. But L.A. has a long history with the valley, and some residents are worried about this new plan.

Botanist Mark Bagley works with the Sierra Club in the valley:

Mark Bagley: Right outside my door here we can see the White Mountains.

The White Mountains overlook the valley from the east across from Mount Whitney. Tourism dominates the local economy. The area's also been the backdrop for hundreds of films. Bagley worries tourism and filming may dry up when the solar panels come.

Bagley: When people are up in those mountains they can see these. So these would be new, large-scale industrial sites.

Bagley says he wants green energy, but not at the expense of the sweeping landscape outside his door.

In the Owens Valley, I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

About the author

Jennifer Collins is a reporter for the Marketplace portfolio of programs. She is based in Los Angeles, where she covers media, retail, the entertainment industry and the West Coast.

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