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Palmdale airport land may become a solar farm

Proposal could give L.A. a major source of renewable energy, but would face obstacles.

February 23, 2009|Dan Weikel and David Zahniser

After buying 17,750 acres in Palmdale for an intercontinental jetport that has not gotten off the ground, Los Angeles airport officials say they might finally have a use for much of the property: a solar power facility capable of generating up to 100 megawatts of clean energy.

If approved, the project would help Los Angeles comply with a major portion of Measure B, a local proposition on the March 3 ballot that would require the city to generate 400 megawatts of electricity from solar installations by 2014.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is eyeing about 4,000 largely undeveloped acres of Palmdale airport property, a site that could achieve 25% of the goal of Measure B at a single location, assuming city voters pass it. The balance of the requirement would probably come from smaller locations across the city, including rooftops and parking lots.

DWP general manager H. David Nahai said Palmdale is not crucial to fulfilling the terms of Measure B. Still, if Los Angeles could place a solar farm on the high desert property, "it would be like having the city's own power plant," he said.

"Who would say no to that?" Nahai said.

For starters, how about Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich? He has been a vocal critic of Los Angeles' failure to establish permanent air service in Palmdale as part of a larger strategy to spread air traffic more evenly across the region.

The DWP and Los Angeles World Airports, which owns the property, would have to curry favor with Antonovich, whose district includes Palmdale Regional Airport. Although Antonovich said he has welcomed solar facilities into his district, he also noted that property owners were required to sell their land decades ago specifically to make way for the airport.

"The city of Los Angeles took this land by eminent domain for the express purpose of establishing and operating a regional airport vital to our county's ability to provide air transportation service now and in the future," Antonovich said in a prepared statement. "The city should keep its promise to the people of the Antelope Valley or give the land back to its rightful owners."

Leasing or selling airport land for a purpose other than aviation would require approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal regulations require that land purchased for an airport be used for aeronautical purposes.

The Air Force might also have to approve the change if there is a potential for the solar facility to interfere with military operations at Edwards Air Force Base and Plant 42, an Air Force aerospace facility next to the Palmdale airport property.

Industry studies indicate that solar collectors, which are made of glare-resistant materials, do not pose a hazard for aircraft because they absorb light rather than reflect it. The FAA has no regulations covering the location and installation of solar panels.

Los Angeles officials began buying land in Palmdale in the early 1970s for a global airport that could handle 100 million passengers a year and accommodate SSTs, the supersonic passenger planes that are no longer in service. The property cost more than $100 million.

The reality, however, has fallen short of the vision. There was no demand for a major jetport in Palmdale. Instead of building it, L.A. airport officials, with the help of Palmdale officials, cobbled together a small regional airport by leasing land from the U.S. Air Force and entering into an agreement to use the runway that serves Plant 42. About eight airlines have come and gone from the airport over the years, the latest being United, which canceled service in December.

Since then, officials have shut the terminal, closed its nearby administration building and decided to surrender Palmdale's FAA certification. Palmdale city officials are now trying to salvage the effort to attract air service.

"A solar farm. That is a far cry from an airport," said Palmdale Mayor James Ledford, who added that Los Angeles World Airports "has never approached us about this."

Officials for the city's airport authority said there have been several preliminary discussions with solar companies and the DWP about using the western portion of the property. Though the airport agency would like to retain the Palmdale property, there is a good argument for selling it, said airport spokesman Mike Molina.

"We would not need all 17,000 acres for an airport," Molina said. "I think LAX only has about 3,500 acres."

Backers of Measure B say it would reduce the city's reliance on fossil fuels, primarily coal, and create as many as 8,000 new jobs. Opponents say it would lead to considerably higher electrical rates and benefit the DWP's employee union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to the exclusion of other trade unions.

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