Southern California environment news and trends

Up in the Air...over the Riverside East solar zone

Molly Peterson/KPCC

The little San Bernardino Mountains are visible over the shoulder of one of the other 5 people in the 6 seat plane.

Sitting middle row in a six-seater 2-stroke prop plane, I got an unparalleled view of the Riverside East solar zone this morning. At 7 o'clock tonight, the latest version of federal plans for permitting large-scale renewable energy sites in this, the largest designated region in a six-state scheme, get a public hearing in Palm Springs. In October, the federal government shrank its proposal for the Riverside East region by about a quarter of its original size. 

We've been following the systemmatic planning and development of large-scale projects in California's wildlands since last year. Some projects are getting going already. First Solar's Desert Sunlight solar farm, a 550-megawatt site near Desert Center. NextEra's Genesis solar project near Blythe. And they're either hiring or have hired up, if the aerial views are any indication for today. 

We skirted Joshua Tree National Park, the little San Bernardino Mountains, Iron Mountain (in the distance), and neared Blythe. The vastness of these places is striking, in direct contrast to the pop of green oases and golf courses in Palm Springs, in imagined contrast to the density of the megalopolis in which I live and work most of the time. Is that rectangle of scraped-level land the size of a swimming pool or a football field? No, as it turns out; the size of several football fields, bigger than my college campus.

By the time I adjusted my perspective we were nearly back on the ground with the biplanes in Palm Springs. Most of us have no sense of that scale, what solar farms take to get going, what a desert ecosystem needs to thrive in a changing climate. It's daunting, sometimes, to try to represent that complexity as simply as possible.

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