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April 29, 2013

The Sun Is Rising in the West

When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced a few weeks ago that his city would be off coal power entirely by 2025, it was both exciting and, as Al Gore put it, "a really big deal."

It was also only part of the story.

The other part -- also a really big deal -- is that Southern California is rapidly locking in new sources of energy to replace dirty fossil fuels. One of them -- the Antelope Valley Solar Projects that officially broke ground on Friday -- represents large-scale renewable energy technology at its best and its brightest. When completed in 2015, these solar projects will provide 579 megawatts of clean energy (enough to power about 400,000 homes). Every one of those megawatts will displace energy that might otherwise come from dirty fossil fuels like natural gas. In the process, they'll eliminate more than 775,000 tons of carbon pollution per year (not to mention quite a lot of air and water pollution).

Fantastic as those stats are, though, they wouldn't mean as much if this project did not succeed in a couple of other important ways.

Here in the United States, we're lucky to have abundant renewable energy resources -- wind, sun, and hydro. In theory, it's enough to power our entire country several times over. But we need to be smart about where and how we access that energy. The rim of the Grand Canyon, for instance, would never be anyone's first choice for a wind farm.

In the case of Antelope Valley, the project has been a model of smart planning. In fact, Sierra Club volunteers worked closely with the developers almost from the beginning to improve the project. The project site was private land that had no threatened or endangered species. It's located near existing transmission lines. It will require a lot less water than the previous use for the land -- growing alfalfa.

Another way the Antelope Valley Solar Projects succeed is economically. Here's the proof: Early this year, the original developer of the project, SunPower, was acquired by MidAmerican Renewables, a subsidiary of MidAmerican Energy Holdings Company, which is controlled by Berkshire Hathaway. The primary shareholder, chairman, and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, of course, is Warren Buffett, who is considered the most successful investor of the 20th century. MidAmerican has a portfolio of more than 1,830 megawatts of renewable energy assets, including wind, geothermal, solar, and hydro assets.

The next time someone tries to tell you that renewable energy isn't a good investment, point out that it's good enough for Warren Buffett. (Before you send the Oracle of Omaha a clean-energy mash note, though, be sure to read the just-published Sierra magazine article about a more problematic part of his portfolio. Mr. Buffett should take care to avoid the carbon bubble and move out of dirty fuels entirely.)

The Antelope Valley Solar Projects are part of a remarkable surge in solar solutions. Last month, all of the new power-generation capacity added in the U.S. came from solar power. In the first three months of 2013, we added twice as much new solar capacity to the U.S. grid as in all of 2012. Projects like the ones in Antelope Valley are great for the environment and for our clean-energy future. If they show dirty fuel investors how they can profit from clean energy instead, that's good, too.

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