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New Solar Power System Puts This Park in the Forefront of Alternative Energy Use

The photovoltaic solar system at Furnace Creek in Death Valley N.P. Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

The photovoltaic solar system at Furnace Creek in Death Valley N.P. Photo courtesy of Xanterra Parks & Resorts.

There's been a lot of discussion in our country recently about alternative energy, and whether or not solar, wind and other high-tech sources of power are really practical. If you were assigned the job of selecting a national park in the United States where solar energy could reduce consumption of electricity from traditional energy sources in a meaningful way, which park would be your first choice?

When it comes to potential for solar power, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better location anywhere on the planet than Death Valley National Park. You may live in an area where staying cool in the summer requires a lot of electricity, but I suspect this piece of the California desert has just about everyone else beat for serious summer heat.

One key question remains—can usable amounts of solar power be produced without undue intrusion on park views and resources?

The good new is… at Death Valley, the answer seems to be "yes." One of the largest privately-owned PV (photovoltaic) energy systems in the country was installed earlier this year by Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the park concessioner that operates the Furnace Creek Inn and Furnace Creek Ranch.

The one megawatt system is big—it covers an area larger than five football fields—so it was installed in the middle of an existing developed area and is screened by vegetation. The solar plant is expected to generate more than one-third of the total annual electricity needs of Xanterra's operations in Death Valley by producing more than two million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year. That's enough to power more than 400 average-sized American homes.

I spoke by phone with Chris Lane, Xanterra's vice president of Environmental Affairs, to find out how the system is doing after its first summer of operation. He's enthusiastic about the results, and says they are on track to generate 2 million kWh for the first year. During mid-day in the summer, the system has produced as much as 75 percent of the total electric power used by the company's Furnace Creek facilities.

The system tracks the sun throughout the day and was designed to withstand the harsh conditions of Death Valley. The electricity feeds directly into the electric grid instead of into batteries.

What do visitors think about the idea? I spoke with a ranger in the park's interpretation division, who said they had received a "lot of positive comments," and he hadn't heard any negative feedback. The solar facility itself has become something of an attraction, and Xanterra has constructed a viewing platform so the public can get a better look.

Some pundits around the country have questioned the economics of "green" energy, but this company seems sold on the idea.

"Xanterra is exceptionally proud of this system because it illustrates what one company can do with a systematic environmental program and a long-term approach to sustainable operations," said Andrew N. Todd, president and CEO of Denver-based Xanterra. "It also proves that doing the right thing environmentally can make good business sense. The project is fiscally viable. With the savings on energy costs, we expect to break even in just a few years."

Let's hope that other companies—and the politicians who fund park facilities—are paying attention.


Some pundits around the country have questioned the economics of "green" energy

And it's a shame and a sham that many of them have personal and corporate financial concerns as motivation for their positions. The propaganda that is largely distributed through the efforts of the empowered electrical utility and mining companies is constantly belittling supplemental alternative energy sources such as the one demonstrated above for more reasons than can be succinctly posted. But there exist large scale (relatively) developments of solar and geothermal energy sources being constructed across the nation as we speak. Entire subdivisions have been erected totally without connecting to the existing power grid, and by the way, some also possess the capability to manage totally independent waste water treatment and recycling facilities, and one even has an on-site recycling center. Roadways made of recycled tires and glass fragments as opposed to the petroleum-based nightmare that withers during the northern latitudes annual rite commonly known as the freeze / thaw cycle. While the current economics are not able to be compared to the "cheap and stinky" system of coal-fired generators, most certainly not on the national scale to be sure, when does anyone propose would be a more opportune moment to explore these widely available energy sources? After the coal and oil reserves are depleted? You think these alternative sources aren't economical now, what would be the result of waiting until the 11th hour to develop them? What happens to the pricing structure when you only have one choice left? Let's all stop being led through life with blinders on like the good little ignorant American consumer and start demanding modifications to the system BEFORE we're forced to enact those changes by foreign energy suppliers. Wouldn't it be nice to regain control of our own destiny, or is that too broad a concept to grasp? It's certainly not beyond our capability as an allegedly technologically superior and innovative, solution-based nation, unless we stay the course and permit business as usual to be the driving force behind our national energy policy. Maybe we need a new utility management team who, unlike Enron, actually has a clue how to maintain and develop a grid system on the local, regional and national levels, and who isn't crappin' in their pants about the "competition", and who can utilize current technologies along with the old pollution-riddled system in place currently. On the other hand, there's no maybe about it........we DEFINATELY need a new power management team. We as a nation DESERVE better than we're being given, but we'll have to band together and force this change if we really want it to become reality. And there is actually no more opportune moment than currently exists.

Lone Hiker, always find your comments quite thought provoking and informative. If we throw in Boone Pickens into the equations with your constructive comments, do you think we have chance to set-up a decent wind grid that stretches from Texas to North Dakota? A enormous task at hand but the potentiality of the project appears to have great possibilities. I like the fact that Mr. Pickens is willing to take this bold step towards energy dependency and thrust forward to make it reality. Definitely a man with grand vision.

T.Boone's got a few advantages over the simpletons like hundred$ of million$ of them.

From the Rio Grande to Red River, eh? Now THAT'S ambitious!!! As an aside, a portion of your system already exists in Minnesota, generating enough surplus kilowatts to sell back to the local grid system. Long-term, the idea of a national network of solar panels, windmills, geothermal vents, etc. that can support the requirements of a nation is a noble goal, and should be the eventual overall goal. But in the very doable short-term what I'd advocate is local and regional development, not necessarily stand-alones, but systems designed to alleviate the majority of the requirement in given areas and able to supply whatever output they can generate. ANYTHING that these systems can add to the grid is a plus. Yes, they cost money to manufacture, install and maintain, and these costs are one of the favorite targets of their detractors. So where does that make them any different than today's technology? Anybody ever put up a nuclear generator for free? Or a dam? Or a coal burner? Gimme a break.........

We need to start by being reasonable in the expectation of what each unique geography has to offer. Solar and hydroelectric in the Midwest and upper-east coast are almost useless. But on the other hand, both work extremely well in the west and southwest. Wind power on the Great Plains is already a proven technology, when placed properly. Not very feasible in the mountains however. The whole point is to work with what you have to the best of your abilities and stop ignoring viable options. It constantly amazes me how we, as a nation, hold true to the ideal that if you throw enough money at an issue you can solve the problem. Why are we so slow to add the future of our energy sources to that list? That is, outside of the fact that special interest groups invest comparatively little to keep the public misinformed / disinformed as to the viability of alternative energy, who's throwing money around in sufficient quantities such as to be useful in eradicating the issue? Do we just expect to wake up from the nightmare on day and the beast will have gone away with the daylight? Do we honestly believe that Big Oil and our federal government will work together for the "good of the people"? How naive we've become....

I see some reasons to hope that attitudes about alternative energy are beginning to change - as illustrated by the private investment in this system at Death Valley and your example of T. Boone Pickens, who made his fortune in oil and gas, but now sees the potential for wind energy. When successful businessmen put their money on the table, we're making progress.

There's been growing interest in the past year or so about off-shore wind farms, which offer the potential to provide reliable winds for more hours each day and more days per year. The best locations identified for many of those sites are also far enough off-shore to avoid many of the conflicts with those who object to the aesthetics of wind generators - witness the death of an earlier project near Cape Cod.

I believe it's possible to develop facilities for solar and wind without compromising scenic or other values of sites such as national parks. The same principles can (and should) be applied to oil and gas development. The key is responsible planning and dialogue, to determine what makes the most sense for any given location.

An encouraging example on progress on alternative energy is a story about a proposed major wind energy development in South Dakota. Perhaps most important is the point that it's being funded in part by "BP Plc, Europe's second-largest oil company. BP plans to have 1 gigawatt of wind power generating capacity in the U.S. by the end of the year, which will rise to 3 gigawatts in the next couple of years,'' said the company spokesman Robert Wine. Together with Clipper Windpower Plc, it plans to invest as much as $15 billion to build the world's biggest wind farm in the U.S." Here's a link to the story.

Good postings all. Hope this page gets a lot of visits.

I visited the solar field yesterday. All the panels face due east and are tipped to maximize summer sun. When I use a solar panel, I make sure it points due south and maximize it for winter sun. Anyone know what the thoughts were behind this set-up? I hope it wasn't an expensive mistake!!

I saw these same panels a week ago, Jan. My understanding is that they are designed to track the sun throughout the daylight period. Jim pointed this out in his article.

I'm glad Xanterra is using solar power, especially after diluting "mineral" baths with tap water at their Saratoga Springs resort.

I'm surprised to see the NPT crowd rally behind Xanterra and its new owner, Denver billionaire and supporter of conservative Christian causes, Philip Anschutz. With his net worth of $7.8 billion, he could single handedly wipe out the NPS maintenance backlog. He's also served on the board of directors of the National Petroleum Council, an American advisory committee representing oil and natural gas industry views to the Secretary of Energy. (Luckily, after external pressure, his corporation gave up plans to drill for oil near a major Native American rock art site.)

I'm so glad national park visitors are helping line the pockets of the likes of Philip Anschutz. His solar project makes up for everything.

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