Green Education: Giant Solar Arrays Power California College

solar panel
solar panel

In the high desert of Southern California, 122 giant stands of glass, aluminum and steel have risen from the dusty earth like an army of drones in a sci-fi movie. But these structures are no figment of the imagination -- they're solar power-generating systems that concentrate sunlight.

The six-acre solar field, located at a community college in Victorville, northeast of Los Angeles, only recently began generating electricity. It's the pride of both Victor Valley College and SolFocus, the Silicon Valley company that developed the technology.

The college expects the 1-megawatt field to generate about 2.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year, enough to provide 30% of the campus's needs. The college spent $4.7 million on construction, including funds from a bond approved by local voters in 2008.

Technology Showcase

For SolFocus, the project showcases its technology, which relies on mirrors and prisms to capture and concentrate the sunlight 650 times onto solar cells. This method makes it possible to use small solar cells and thereby reduce the costs of building and running each solar array, the company says.

The solar cells make use of the same mix of semiconductors commonly found in solar cells built onto satellites and robots that explore other planets, such as NASA's Mars rovers. The power plant is not only SolFocus's largest, it's also the biggest solar energy field in North America that uses concentrating photovoltaic (CPV) technology.

"Look at this fabulous renewable energy field," said Mark Crowley, CEO of SolFocus, during the inauguration ceremony on Tuesday. "It's an unbelievable achievement."

Green Education

The project also provides the college students a chance to study solar energy generation and habitat restoration, professors say. Students will see first-hand how the CPV technology works and use data from the solar energy field to analyze its output. How much the solar arrays will produce daily or from season to season will vary depending on the weather, since the technology, of course, works best under direct sunlight.

"It's an amazing teaching tool," says Neville Slade, chairman of California's Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The field once grew carrots, Slade says. When farming stopped, the land didn't return to its original landscape, but became home mostly to rabbit brush, an allergy-inducing plant. The students will also create a plan to plant native grasses and other plants on the barren earth in between the solar arrays, Slade says. The 122 systems occupy only about 2% of the property, Crowley says.

Emergence of Green Jobs

The dedication ceremony attracted both local and state officials, including Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado, who were eager to tout the project's ability to generate "green jobs" by training students in solar power plant installation and operations -- a common refrain by politicians nationwide as they attend ribbon-cutting ceremonies for renewable energy equipment factories and power plants.

President Obama had promised, during the 2008 election campaign, to boost funding for renewable energy generation. Growing unemployment during the Great Recession has prompted Obama and Congress to funnel billions of dollars into various green tech projects, from electric cars to wind and solar energy. The federal government has also given state and local governments millions of dollars to train workers for green jobs.

Colleges Boost Green Jobs Curricula

All these efforts are generating employment, though at a slower pace than what many had expected. Economists say job creation hasn't kept pace with job losses, particularly for lower-income workers. Now a growing number of colleges are adding or boosting their curriculums to take advantage of public funding in green tech research and development and job creation.

A public school's ability to float low-cost bonds, combined with lucrative state incentives, helped make it possible for Victor Valley College to build its solar power plant. In fact, the installation will serve as a billboard to promote similar projects at other schools, says Nancy Hartsoch, vice president of marketing of SolFocus.