September 10, 1987
San Luis Obispo County used to be home of the world’s largest solar-cell power station.
Built by an oil company in 1983, the view of the Arco solar power plant was an eerie combination of age-old scenes of sheep grazing and science fiction technology.
Every few minutes the silence of the Carrizo Plains would be broken with the whir of 799 solar arrays following the sun. The plant could generate 6.5 megawatts.
For comparison the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant generates 1,073 megawatts from Unit 1 and 1,087 MW from Unit 2.Four natural gas fired units at the aging Morro Bay Power Plant can generate up to 1002 megawatts but rarely do. The antiquated 1950’s era technology is not cost effective.
The solar plant was a product of government incentives created in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis.
The sudden interest in energy independence had unintended benefits.
A major reason the Soviet Union could not keep pace with President Ronald Reagan’s military build up was that the oil market collapsed as America cut oil consumption. No demand for Russian oil, the ruble falls, no budget.
When oil prices fell the U.S. lost interest in energy policy. Reagan removed solar panels from the roof of the White House and allowed tax credits to dry up for alternative energy.
Now Russia uses fuel as a foreign policy weapon.
Nations like Germany have taken the lead in solar development.
By April 1995 the last of the Carrizo solar panels were being scrapped. Now the wind whistles through a cyclone fence enclosing an empty field.
Today after another oil price spike there are proposals for three new solar plants on the Carrizo north of the Monument.
Photos by David Middlecamp