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Ray of hope in Lancaster

A solar panel facility could bring jobs to an area hit by hard times.

December 05, 2008|Scott Gold | Gold is a Times staff writer.

They lined up for meatball sandwiches the other night outside the Lancaster Community Shelter, in the cold of the high desert. There was a man in a fedora who'd lost his house to the bank. A college student whose loans fell through. An older woman with curlers in her bag, who planned to do her hair after dinner.

Everyone had a story to tell, a cigarette to borrow, a friend to greet. But soon, the crowd hushed as a young mother and her boyfriend walked toward the door carrying 3-week-old twins. They had no money, nowhere to stay, they said. Between them, they'd applied for a dozen jobs -- she got all gussied up for her interview at Denny's, even borrowed a pair of heels -- but they'd had a run of rotten luck, she said.

The buzz in the Antelope Valley these days is about a company called eSolar, which is putting the finishing touches on a thermal solar energy facility here -- 24,000 mirrors that glitter like diamonds when you approach on Avenue G. There are plans for several more facilities in the area, all larger, the company says.

Local officials are atwitter at the possibilities. Visitors and investors are expected from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. A slew of jobs would be created; there were 225 people working last week on the Avenue G facility alone, most of them locals. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris said the solar plants could be the catalyst to restoring the sort of "intellectual excitement" that existed when aerospace, still a vital industry here, was the only game in town -- when "if it went up, it came out of here," he said.

"Now, we're going to go a long way toward saving this world," the mayor said. "Right here in Lancaster."

It's heady talk, and people are listening. Lancaster and the surrounding valley are suffering, even by the standards of a community that long ago acclimated to a boom-and-bust cycle. Many here are living on the edge, and some beyond, with tens of thousands more expected to arrive in coming years.

There is a sense that development cannot come fast enough, not with shops closing, one in five people living in poverty, high unemployment and the highest mortality rate in Los Angeles County. Not with so many houses falling into foreclosure that the city of Lancaster has gone into real estate -- buying and renovating empty homes to slow the decline of neighborhoods.

"It's bad," said William Turner, 21, who got a job installing eSolar mirrors through a temp agency. He is among those vying for one of the full-time positions the company will offer soon; competition will be fierce and many of those hired will be overqualified for their jobs, officials said.

"People around here are really hurting," Turner said. "We need a change."

ESolar operations and maintenance manager Bob Holsinger was the fourth of five siblings who grew up on an Illinois soybean farm, and he still looks the part, with broad, rounded shoulders and aircraft-carrier-sized boots.

When Holsinger was young, his father dispensed one piece of advice to the kids: "Last one out, turn out the lights." It was meant, of course, to cut down on the power bill. But Holsinger always suspected it meant something else -- that whoever controlled the flow of electricity would be the last one standing, even if everything else went south. Today, after a 35-year career in energy, it turns out he might have been right.

California is the epicenter of U.S. solar technology; there are dozens of energy projects in the works. Few have generated as much anticipation as this one, if only because with 1,000 mirrors being installed each day, it is growing in stark contrast to the boarded-up storefronts and the brown, brittle lawns in front of abandoned houses.

The company uses the mirrors to focus the sun's rays on an elevated target, which produces superheated steam that turns turbines to create power. The whole thing can be assembled easily, like an Erector Set for grown-ups. Workers can put it together using four wrenches.

The mirrors can be adjusted remotely from the company's headquarters in Pasadena to ensure that they are capturing the sun. The mirrors can be fine-tuned; workers at a test site recently used the reflection to spell out the words "HAPPY BIRTHDAY BILL" for a colleague.

"It's pretty slick," Holsinger said.

When eSolar flips the switch, five megawatts of electricity will be sent into the grid, enough to power roughly 5,000 homes. A second facility, far larger, is expected north of Lancaster, and there are plans for several more in the area, enough to produce 500 megawatts, perhaps, in the next decade, the company says.

"We are not going to have a carbon footprint in 10 years. We just won't have one," said the mayor, a successful lawyer given to hyperbole, and to infectious passion.

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