LONE PINE, California An old battleground of California's water wars could turn into one of the largest solar farms in the world, with thousands of shiny black and blue panels mounted across the desiccated, salty white crust of Owens Lake.
That's the plan by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP), the largest public utility in the United States.
The project may eventually generate 3 to 5 gigawatts of power -- enough for 10 percent of California's power supply -- and include other utilities like PG&E and Southern California Edison and independent power producers.
Its scale would beat the largest current project, planned by industry bellwether First Solar in China.
The project adds to the list of large-scale solar projects slated for California and the southwestern United States. They could help the country overtake Germany as the world's largest solar market by 2012.
It would also help meet renewable energy goals in Los Angeles and California. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants the city to get 40 percent of its energy from renewable resources by 2020; California wants clean power to provide one third of its electricity by that time.
Some of the best solar resources shine on Owens Lake, some 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the city's utility head says.
"If you're trying to do massive solar... you need a large flat area that's already under single ownership, you need transmission access and you need good sun. The Lord is the one that picked that site. I didn't," said David Freeman, the interim chief of Los Angeles' utility, in an interview.
Some large-scale solar projects -- hungry for sunny, wide-open spaces -- have been at odds with conservationists, who aim to protect wildlife and pristine habitat.
Those tensions may ease at Owens Lake, where the scarred earth has suffered environmental damage.
SOLAR VS DUST
Yet where water once flowed, mistrust lingers.
The proposed site of the solar complex is where Los Angeles in 1913 built the first of two aqueducts to carry water from Owens Valley to the growing city. The lake was dry by the end of the 1920s.
Freeman says the solar array may be a way to "make peace."
"Eighty years ago, we stole the water. It's been an intense relationship," he added.
The residents of Inyo County approach the plans with caution -- in particular those in small towns like Keeler where gauzy white dust storms still blow at times from the lake.
"I think there's a lot of potential for benefits for folks in the county and in the city, but they need to do it right," said Mark Bagley, who works with the Sierra Club and the Owens Valley Committee. The groups successfully fought the DWP to restore the Lower Owens River.
Among the concerns: local jobs, protecting habitat for local wildlife and whether solar panels will stop the dust.
"It could be another boom and bust," said Kathleen New, a Lone Pine native who runs the local chamber of commerce.
She wants more jobs and land for town housing -- even if it is only a dozen homes. The DWP or state and federal governments own 98 percent of the land in Inyo County.
Once silver ore flowed from Owens Valley. Now the local economy runs on cattle and tourism. Visitors trek to see Mount Whitney or the nearby Death Valley, the nation's highest and lowest elevations, respectively.
Los Angeles is moving fast to build in 2011 a pilot project of 6 to 10 megawatts over 80 acres. The DWP plans to finance the cost of $30 million to $40 million itself.
Freeman said that Los Angeles could expand its array to 250 MW, with construction starting in 2012 and operations in 2014. The DWP also may lease land to other utilities for their own solar arrays, creating a solar park of 3 to 5 gigawatts. Outside financing would be needed for that kind of expansion, Freeman said.
The overall project is still in its conceptual phase, with many details yet to be determined, such as suppliers for solar panels from the likes of California's SunPower Corp or China's Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd.
It also needs environmental approval as well as financing and more transmission capacity if the plans reach the envisioned scale. And state authorities must decide if the panels can slow strong winds, stopping dust storms.
So far, the DWP has spent $500 million to control the dust with shallow flooding, ponds and salt grass planted on parts of the lake bed. Residents say the work has helped.
"It's an added bonus if it makes electricity," said Beverly Vander Wall, who owns a gift shop in Lone Pine.
"There's a lot, a lot of sun here. Why not use it to our benefit?" she added.
(Reporting by Laura Isensee; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)