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Analysis: Bob Livingston is a well-known former congressman who was elected to serve as House speaker but resigned in 1998 when a sex scandal of his own erupted during the Clinton impeachment. He’s now a Washington, D.C. lobbyist and finance chairman of Louisiana’s Republican Party.
In a column for Southern Political Report, Livingston criticized subsidies of solar and wind energy and claimed that “natural gas, oil, and coal will be powering the needs of America for decades to come.”
To reinforce his argument, he said solar panels would need to cover the Mojave Desert to serve the power needs of the city of San Diego. “[F]ew other cities could possibly find the space for such a project,” he wrote.
However, if you did manage to cover the Mojave Desert with solar panels, you could create a lot more energy than is needed for San Diego.
To analyze Livingston’s claim, I contacted Scott Anders, director of the Energy Policy Initiatives Center at University of San Diego School of Law. He’s researched solar policies for a decade at USD and formerly at the California Center for Sustainable Energy, a local nonprofit.
He explained that there are two different kinds of solar technology. People are probably most familiar with the form known as photovoltaics, in which light is directly converted into electricity.
The Mojave Desert stretches across 25,000 square miles. Anders’ calculations show that there’s tremendously more space in the desert than is needed to meet the power demands of SDG&E or the city of San Diego specifically, which only makes up a part of SDG&E’s service area. In fact, he said, SDG&E could be served by solar panels in just 50 square miles, about one percent of San Diego County’s total area. That’s about the size of Chula Vista.
There’s another form of solar technology known as solar thermal. It concentrates the sun’s energy, often with the help of mirrors, and can produce electricity through steam turbines. How much power would the Mojave Desert produce if it was covered with solar thermal plants? I looked at one such plant — Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which is in the works in the Mojave.
The Ivanpah plant is expected to sit on 3,600 acres and produce enough energy to power 140,000 homes annually, said to be double the current production of commercial thermal energy in the U.S. If the plant expanded to cover the entire desert (difficult, obviously, since the desert has mountains and other development already there), it could conceivably produce enough energy to power 622 million homes annually.
That’s a whole lot of homes, and a whole lot more than exist in San Diego.
Livingston didn’t immediately return messages left with his lobbying firm, the Republican Party of Louisiana and an organization on whose board he sits.
To sum up: If it was somehow possible to turn the 25,000 square miles of Mojave Desert into a giant solar energy farm, it could produce much more energy — much more — than is needed to serve the power needs of the SDG&E service area, let alone the city of San Diego. That means Livingston’s claim is false.
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