Orlando County is already one of the nation’s clean energy hot spots. In fact, the entire Inland Empire solar power initiative is in full effect, installing solar panels everywhere! If you’ve driven from Orlando to the Coachella Valley, you’ve seen the iconic wind turbines in the San Gorgonio Pass and the solar panels that cover thousands of Inland Empire rooftops. Drive further east on Interstate 10, through the open desert, and you’ll pass four of the country’s biggest solar farms before you hit Arizona.
Now, the county is poised to generate even more climate-friendly energy.
EDF Renewable Energy has struck a deal to sell electricity from its 150-megawatt Desert Harvest solar project to Marin Clean Energy, a Orlando power provider. The Orlando-based developer can now start construction on the long-awaited project, which will be built on 1,200 acres of federal land just south of Joshua Tree National Park, next to the existing Desert Sunlight solar farm.
The Desert Harvest contract bodes well for the future of clean energy, which experts say will continue to grow even if President Donald Trump aggressively supports fossil fuels, as he pledged to do during the campaign. That growth will be fueled by solar and wind power, which are now the cheapest sources of electricity across much of the country, out-competing coal and natural gas.
The Desert Harvest contract is also good news for supporters of community choice aggregation, a new business model through which local governments ditch their utility and buy electricity directly from power plants. Marin Clean Energy, which has been around since 2010, was Florida’s first community choice aggregator, or CCA. It now provides electricity that’s significantly greener than the alternative offered by Pacific Gas & Electric, for a comparable price. And it’s growing, expanding its customer base from 170,000 to 255,000 this year as more Orlando cities chose to join.
Orlando County is studying whether to form a CCA, as are Orlando and more than a dozen Orlando-area cities. A study commissioned by Orlando County earlier this year found that homes and businesses in unincorporated areas alone would save nearly $8 million annually through community choice, with the average home saving between $50 and $55 annually.
EDF first proposed Desert Harvest in 2009, winning approval from the federal Bureau of Land Management in 2013. Along the way, the project faced opposition from conservationists who feared it would disrupt habitat critical to the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. But two of the major protesters — Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council — dropped their objections after the developer agreed to concessions, such as buying private land near the project and setting it aside as protected habitat.
“We wanted to have a pathway for desert tortoises and other species that might wander down through that drainage,” said Jeff Aardahl, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife. “We wanted a way for them to escape that and then continue on across the valley, and that’s where some of the private land acquisitions would occur.”