TIME

Inside the World’s Largest Solar Power Plant

Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes
Jamey Stillings for TIME Desert oasis: The plant’s 8 million solar panels power about 160,000 California homes

The Desert Sunlight Solar Farm is a burst of energy in the Mojave Desert

At the edge of the Mojave Desert, about 80 miles (130 km) east of Palm Springs, Calif., millions of midnight blue solar panels stretch to the horizon, angled toward the sky like reclining sunbathers. Here, the sun has few enemies. It shines at least 300 days of the year, bathing the more than 8 million photovoltaic (PV) panels at the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in daylong streams of rays. All that free sunlight is converted into electricity that flows into California’s thirsty power grid, eventually helping charge iPhones in Los Angeles and switch on TVs in Sacramento.

The possibility of solar power on such a massive scale seemed remote just a decade ago. Solar was seen as a small solution to small problems, a novel way for your environmentally minded neighbor to show off his green credentials, yet too expensive to ever be economical. But that’s changed as a dramatic increase in solar-panel production–brought about by a global expansion in manufacturing capacity–has sent costs plummeting. Increasingly efficient second-generation solar technology can squeeze more energy from the sun’s rays at a lower cost, and the federal government has opened vast tracts of public land to massive for-profit ventures like Desert Sunlight.

As a result, solar power in America has officially grown up. The two largest solar power plants in the world—Desert Sunlight and Topaz Solar Farm, about 400 miles (640 km) to the west in central California—have come online in the past three months. While the first U.S. solar plant, built in 1982, generated 1 megawatt of electricity, Desert Sunlight generates 550 megawatts. Topaz produces the same amount. Together their impact on carbon emissions is equivalent to taking 130,000 cars off the road while providing 340,000 homes with clean energy. “These projects [are] the first utility-scale projects that are really on the scale of a conventional coal or nuclear power plant,” says Harry Atwater, a professor of applied physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Utility-scale solar plants were nowhere to be found on public lands just a few years ago, in part because it was too costly to build them. Desert Sunlight, which was officially dedicated Feb. 9 on 3,800 acres (1,540 hectares) of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, is now the sixth operational solar plant on federal property. Twenty-nine other solar projects have been approved for public lands, and eight are currently under construction in California and Nevada. And there’s room for more. The federal government administers almost 250 million acres (101 million hectares) of U.S. territory, roughly one-ninth of the country, most of it in the West and much of it desert with abundant sunlight—perfect for millions of photon-hungry solar panels.

“When the [Obama] Administration came on board, it was clear that clean energy was a priority,” says Ray Brady, manager of the National Renewable Energy Office for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), who notes that the Department of the Interior met its target of generating 10,000 megawatts of solar energy in 2012, three years ahead of schedule. (The department has approved more than 16,000 solar megawatts.) “Desert Sunlight was very important in meeting that goal.”

But getting the location right was critical. Utility-scale solar plants need to be somewhere with year-round sun, in a space large enough to hold hundreds of thousands of solar modules but close enough to civilization to easily connect to the energy grid. Desert Sunlight sits just outside Desert Center (pop. 204), a tiny town southeast of Joshua Tree National Park. Average high temperature in July: 104°F (40°C). In January: 65°F (18°C). Average annual rainfall: 4 in. (10 cm). “It’d be safe to say just about every day you’re going to get some sunlight,” says Steve Krum, a spokesman for First Solar, which built and operates the plant.

The site’s millions of 2-by-4-ft. (0.6 by 1.2 m) panels are each covered by a thin film of glass that absorbs sunlight and captures electrons, creating an electrical current that flows into wires in the back of each module. That energy is converted from DC power into usable AC power by inverters and is sent to the electrical grid via a nearby substation. Each panel generates approximately 90 to 100 watts.

Desert Sunlight originated at a time when engineers were just figuring out how to produce solar panels on a mass scale. In the past, panels were often made using silicon, which tended to yield more energy but were expensive and difficult to mass-produce. But First Solar, which is based in Tempe, Ariz., and bought the rights to Desert Sunlight in 2010, has shied away from silicon and instead produces “thin-film” panels made with cadmium telluride, which can be cheaper than silicon but less efficient in converting sunlight into energy.

The favorable economics of thin-film PV work only if silicon remains expensive. In 2011, the price of silicon began falling rapidly, as cheap, government-subsidized Chinese PV panels flooded the market. Solyndra, a solar-energy company championing what it believed were innovative and more efficient panels made of cylindrical tubes, became a punching bag for conservatives after cheap silicon forced the company to declare bankruptcy in 2011 despite a $500 million loan guarantee from the federal government. But First Solar, which makes its solar modules in the U.S. and Malaysia, is betting on its automated, in-house production and less-expensive components to insulate it from fluctuations in the market. The company also successfully increased its panels’ energy output, recording the highest efficiency standards so far for any thin-film technology.

A New Model

Judging by its scale and location on thousands of acres of public land, Desert Sunlight seems like other sprawling, ambitious government projects before it, a Hoover Dam for the age of climate change. But the development of the plant says a lot about the new way many public-works projects are built in the U.S. today.

Desert Sunlight was the brainchild of private firm OptiSolar (later acquired by First Solar), which saw a market opportunity in helping California’s utility companies meet tough state mandates to produce a third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020. (The state currently gets 20% of its energy from renewables.) Desert Sunlight was supported by a loan guarantee from the Department of Energy worth $1.5 billion, but the plant is owned by NextEra Energy Resources, GE Energy Financial Services and Sumitomo Corporation of America, while the actual facility was built by First Solar. That means the world’s largest solar farm was conceived by private business that profited from tighter state environmental regulations, with their costs underwritten in part by a federal incentive program.

It’s a model that appears to be paying off. Solar is now a $15 billion business in the U.S., employing more people than coal mining, even as costs continue to decrease. Solar panels, for example, are twice as cheap as they were four years ago. In 2014, solar energy accounted for 36% of the country’s installed new energy capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. “It’s hard to convey how this industry has gone from being like a small jewelry business to a bricks-and-mortar paving business,” Atwater says. “And when Desert Sunlight was conceived, I think people thought it was this ambitious California thing to do and wasn’t very economical. But now it’s economical.”

The Future of Solar

The big question is whether projects this large are sustainable. As the price of oil and natural gas continues to drop, solar energy looks less desirable as other sources become more affordable in the short term. First Solar’s stock, for example, has dipped as oil prices have decreased. The BLM’s Brady says that while there are a number of solar projects in the works, applications for large projects on federal lands have fallen significantly.

Federal support is also drying up. A 30% federal investment tax credit will decrease to 10% by 2016. California, meanwhile, is on track to meet the state-mandated standards of 33% renewable energy by 2020. But once it does, that could reduce the incentive to continue producing solar in the state unless a tighter goal is mandated.

The energy business itself is also changing. As photovoltaic technology has gotten cheaper and energy meters have gotten smarter, it’s now possible to build a more distributed grid where electricity is generated on a smaller scale, house by house. SolarCity, for example, which designs and installs residential solar panels, has allowed individuals to drastically lower their electric bills through PV panels attached to their roofs–and often at prices that are next to nothing.

All of which means that solar power may succeed without more utility-scale projects like Desert Sunlight coming online. First Solar has plans to build a 750-megawatt plant in Riverside, Calif., even bigger than Desert Sunlight or Topaz. But so far, only 200 megawatts of energy have been purchased. First Solar’s Krum says that he doesn’t expect many more large solar stations to come online anytime soon. Future plants may end up being half the size of these new behemoths.

Desert Sunlight is undoubtedly a wonder, a glittering oasis in the desert that is the first of its kind. And as it turns out, it may also be the last.


This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.
TIME Environment

Watch How NASA Monitors Sand Flying From the Sahara to the Amazon

Millions of tons of Saharan dust land in the Amazon each year

A NASA satellite has been monitoring the movement of sand from the Sahara Desert in Africa to the Amazon rainforest in South America.

The space agency’s Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observation (CALIPSO) is tracking the massive plumes of dust particles that make the Atlantic crossing from the great African desert to the largest rainforest in the world, where the particles settle and aid plant growth. The phosphorus content of the African dust is an important nutrient in the Amazon.

On average, 182 million tons of dust leave Africa each year, of which 27 million tons is deposited in the Amazon basin, according to data collected since CALIPSO launched in 2006. The amount varies each year, however.

“Using satellites to get a clear picture of dust is important for understanding and eventually using computers to model where that dust will go now and in future climate scenarios,” NASA research scientist Hongbin Yu says.

Read next: This Is How Incredible (and Terrifying) Space Looks in Virtual Reality

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME White House

Obama Vetoes Keystone Pipeline, Only 3rd in Presidency

Keystone Pipeline
Andrew Cullen—Reuters A depot used to store pipes for Transcanada Corp's planned Keystone XL oil pipeline is seen in Gascoyne, N.D. on Nov. 14, 2014.

President Obama issued his first veto since 2010, striking down a law that would authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, a major symbolic battle between environmental activists and the oil industry.

“Through this bill, the United States Congress attempts to circumvent longstanding and proven processes for determining whether or not building and operating a cross-border pipeline serves the national interest,” Obama said in a statement.

The pipeline would help link up to 830,000 barrels a day from Alberta, Canada, to Gulf Coast oil refineries. Over the past six years, the project has become one of the highest-profile environmental debates in the country and could pose problems for some Democratic candidates in the 2016 presidential cycle.

But with low oil prices, the 1,179-mile pipeline will likely have less of an effect on both the environment and economy by lowering the chance that it will be completely utilized. The State Department reported last year that the pipeline would indirectly and directly support around 42,000 jobs over two years, but would only employ around 50 people once the pipeline was functional.

The new Republican-led Congress decried the veto before the ink was dry. In a USA Today op-ed, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote that the Administration had blocked a job-creating project to heed the voices of special interests.

“The allure of appeasing environmental extremists may be too powerful for the president to ignore,” they wrote. “But the president is sadly mistaken if he thinks vetoing this bill will end this fight. Far from it. We are just getting started.”

“This shouldn’t be a difficult decision,” they added. “It shouldn’t be about politics, that’s for sure.”

Of course, the Keystone debate has drawn lobbyists on both sides of the aisle and a reason why Senate Republicans brought the bill up first was because it would pass and draw a favorable political contrast. Polls show that around 60% of Americans agree with the GOP’s position.

The Keystone veto was only the third in the Obama presidency.

TIME Environment

Natalie Portman Joins Calls for Harvard to Sell Off Stocks in Big Energy Firms

'As We Were Dreaming' Premiere - 65th Berlinale International Film Festival
Pascal Le Segretain—Getty Images Actress Natalie Portman attends the 'As We Were Dreaming' premiere during the 65th Berlinale International Film Festival at Berlinale Palace on February 9, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Pascal Le Segretain--Getty Images)

Praises campaign of civil disobedience to spur divestment of fossil fuel stocks

Notable Harvard alumni including Natalie Portman and RFK Jr released a letter Friday calling on their brethren to join current students in demanding that Harvard sell off stocks in companies that deal in fossil fuels.

Harvard students have been engaged in a long battle to get the university to divest its $35.9 billion endowment from coal, gas, and oil companies that students say contribute to global warming.

On Friday, lawyers for the university asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed last year by Harvard students demanding that the school has a duty to stop financially supporting companies that contribute to climate change.

Last week, more than 30 students staged a sit-in in the administrative building that houses the President’s office to demand divestment, and students are starting a competitor to Harvard’s endowment, the fossil-free fund, where concerned alumni can direct donations.

A letter to fellow alumni signed by Portman, Darren Aronofsky, Susan Faludi, Robert F. Kennedy Jr and others praised the civil disobedience of students demanding divestment, but noted that Harvard still needs more pressure to make a change.

“Those students have done a remarkable job in garnering overwhelming student support for divestment, and the faculty too have delivered a strong message,” the letter said. “But so far [Harvard] has not just refused to divest, they’ve doubled down by announcing the decision to buy stock in some of the dirtiest energy companies on the planet.”

The letter also points out the dangers of global warming, the fact that Harvard’s divestment has in the past been a powerful motivator for change, in South Africa during apartheid for example, and that investing those resources in renewable energy will be better for Harvard in the long-run.

The letter also referenced a concept originally stated by Drew Faust, Harvard’s first female president: “The essence of a university is that it is uniquely accountable to the past and to the future – not simply or even primarily to the present.”

Alumni will be joining a teach-in on April 12, and a rally in Harvard Yard on April 13. Some of the alumni will join in a peaceful sit-in around the main administrative building. The letter encouraged all alumni to wear their Harvard gear, out of love for the school.

 

TIME animals

Why Hundreds of Starving Sea Lion Pups Are Washing Up in California

Starving Baby Sea Lions Washing Up On California Beaches
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images A sick California sea lion pup sits in an enclosure at the Marine Mammal Center on Feb. 12, 2015 in Sausalito, California.

It's getting so bad that many rescue networks are at capacity

There are now so many young sea lions being stranded on the West Coast that federal officials say they can’t keep up. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued some brutal advice Wednesday: If you see a beached sea lion pup, call the authorities, but be prepared for them not to come—at least for a while.

Normally the marine mammal stranding network, a series of facilities dotted along the U.S. coastline, will send staff to take in any seal or sea lion pup found stranded and do their best to rehabilitate it. But many facilities in the network are nearing capacity as sea lions wash ashore at a much higher than average rate. Since Jan. 1, rescuers in California have taken in about 1,000 pups—nearly four times the typical total for the first four months of the year.

“The reality is that we can’t get to all of these animals,” says NOAA stranding coordinator Justin Viezbicke.

So what’s going on? Experts at NOAA say that the culprit is rising ocean temperatures. (On a call with reporters Wednesday, a NOAA climate expert said that they do not believe the stranding increase is tied to climate change.) The warm temperatures are somehow affecting the squid, sardines and other animals that are the core diet of sea lions, perhaps driving the prey deeper into the water or farther offshore. So when mothers swim off to forage from the Channel Islands, where pups are weaned every year, they are having to stay away longer before they can come back to nurse. With less frequent nursing, pups are losing weight at unprecedented rates, and experts suspect that these weak, under-grown animals are being driven to look for food on their own before they are ready.

“They’re not really capable of diving deep or traveling far,” says Sharon Melin, a NOAA wildlife biologist. “They’re not really capable of being out on their own.” And so the pups are washing up on shore, emaciated.

The root cause of the crisis, officials believe, is the odd wind patterns that aren’t cooling the ocean like they normally do. They aren’t certain of what’s behind the lack of cold winds, but they believe the patterns are creating a ripple effect through the food chain. The sea lions, at the top of that chain, are signaling that bigger things may be amiss among the larger marine food web. “There are a lot of puzzles here that we’re trying to put together,” says Nate Mantua, a NOAA climatologist. “We don’t understand it. It’s a mystery.”

This is the third bleak year in the past decade for sea lion pups. In 2013, up to 70% of all the sea lion pups born the previous year may have died due to environmental events, according to Melin, twice the amount that might not make it to maturity in a normal year. Officials say this year’s pups appear more under-nourished than any they’ve observed in the past 40 years.

And even when pups get to a rehabilitation facility, they might not make it back to sea. The Marine Mammal Center, the largest facility in California’s stranding network, saved about 60% of the animals who came to them in 2013. “The sea lion pups arriving at the Marine Mammal Center may look like barely more than skin and bones,” says Shawn Johnson, the facility’s director of veterinary science, “but these are the lucky ones.”

The mass strandings have not diminished the overall population of California sea lions, which has been thriving since becoming a protected species in the 1970s. Now around 300,000 in number, NOAA’s Melin says that another factor at work in the current crisis may be that the species is approaching its resource limit in the environment. “Based on what we’re seeing at the colonies,” she says, “we should be bracing for a lot more animals to be coming in.”

TIME Environment

Oregon Chub Becomes the First Fish to Be Taken Off the Endangered Species List

This undated photo provided by Freshwaters Illustrated via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows an Oregon chub, right, swimming with baby salmon in the McKenzie River in Oregon
Jeremy Monroe—AP This undated photo provided by Freshwaters Illustrated via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows an Oregon chub, right, swimming with baby salmon in the McKenzie River in Oregon

In 1993, there were less than a thousand of them

Making history, the Oregon chub became the first fish ever removed from the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Animals on Tuesday.

The minnow, unique to the state’s Willamette River Basin, was listed in 1993, when the population dipped below 1,000. Today the number has climbed to over 140,000 and the minnow can be found in more than 80 locations, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service press release.

“This effort succeeded because of an extraordinary partnership between federal and state agencies, landowners and other stakeholders who brought this species and ecosystem back from the brink of extinction in just over 20 years,” said U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

While the Oregon chub is the first fish to be saved, 28 animals, including America’s iconic bald eagle, have also been rescued.

TIME Environment

Life May Have Thrived on Earth 3.2 Billion Years Ago, Study Says

Scientists had previously thought the earliest ecosystems were clinging on to an essentially uninhabitable planet

Scientists have found evidence that life on earth may have blossomed 3.2 billion years ago, a challenge to the previous theory that the planet was a hostile climate until 2 billion years ago.

Researchers from the University of Washington studied ancient rocks and found indications that 3.2 billion years ago life was sucking an essential nutrient, nitrogen, out of the air and converting it into larger structures, according to a report published in the weekly journal Nature.

“Imagining that this really complicated process is so old, and has operated in the same way for 3.2 billion years, I think is fascinating,” lead author Eva Stüeken told UW Today.

Nitrogen is an essential ingredient for life, as everything from viruses and bacteria to complex organisms use the nutrient to build genes.

The process that makes nitrogen easier for organisms to use, called nitrogen fixation, did not emerge until 2 billion years ago. This led scientists to theorize that the earliest ecosystems were clinging on to an essentially uninhabitable planet, but the new study shows that may not be accurate.

“Our work shows that there was no nitrogen crisis on the early earth, and therefore it could have supported a fairly large and diverse biosphere,” said study co-author Roger Buick.

MONEY Autos

This Cold-Weather Habit Could Cost You Your Car

It might be tempting to warm your car up by leaving it idling in the driveway. But that could be a very expensive move.

TIME Environment

‘Megadroughts’ Could Devastate Southwest U.S. Within a Century

New study warns of dry consequences if greenhouse emissions continue to rise

Droughts like the one California is experiencing are only going to get worse over the course of the century and could devastate some central and western parts of the U.S., according to a new NASA study.

Using data from 17 climate models, scientists were able to project that if greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, there is a significant risk of severe droughts in the Southwest and Central Plains between 2050 and 2100. Reductions in rainfall and increased temperatures will lead to drier soil, according to their models, causing “megadroughts,” which could last between 30 and 35 years, according to the report published Thursday in the journal Science Advances. Typically, droughts last about 10 years. But if emissions continue to increase throughout the 21st century, there’s an 80% chance of “megadrought” events worse than any in the past 1,000 years, researchers said.

“Natural droughts like the 1930s Dust Bowl and the current drought in the Southwest have historically lasted maybe a decade or a little less,” said Ben Cook, a NASA climate scientist and lead author of the study in a statement. “What these results are saying is we’re going to get a drought similar to those events, but it is probably going to last at least 30 to 35 years.”

TIME Environment

Here’s How Much Plastic Ends Up In the World’s Oceans

Malin Jacob Study author Jenna Jambeck of the University of Georgia collects plastic samples from a beach near Caleta de Famara, Canary Islands, Spain.

It's equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans, and that figure could increase by ten-fold over the next 10 years if actions are not taken, according to a new study published in the journal Science.

To determine just how much plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans, researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at University of California, Santa Barbara developed a model that calculated all the sources of ocean debris, and then focused specifically on plastic.

The worst offenders, they found, are the 192 countries situated along an ocean coast. In 2010, the 192 countries altogether generated 275 million metric tons of plastic waste. (One metric ton equals 2,205 pounds.) Based on the researchers’ calculations, 5 to 13 million metric tons of plastic made it to our oceans that year, and most of that waste came from people who live slightly over 30 miles away from the coast.

Lindsay Robinson/University of Georgia

“Our estimate of 8 million metric tons going into the oceans in 2010 is equivalent to five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” said study author Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer from the University of Georgia in Athens, in a statement.

In 2015, the output will be close to 9.1 million metric tons of plastic, Jambeck and her colleagues estimate. And by 2025, the annual cumulative output of plastic into the world’s oceans will be around 155 million metric tons.

Prioritizing the collection of plastic, reducing the use of single-use plastics and cutting down on waste generation are ways to reduce the amount of plastic that makes its way to the coast, the researchers say.

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