Times are hard in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  Its economy, heavily dependent on agriculture, has taken a hit due to the water rationing that has threatened to turn the valley into a dust bowl.  Unemployment has soared to almost 40% in some pockets of this region.

Orchards to which families had tended for generations are full with dead trees.  Voters in this region, who often swing between both Democrats and Republicans, are furious at what they believe is the Bay Area’s environmental meddling and water encroachment in heavily populated Southern California.  Meanwhile, many counties suffer from high levels of air pollution.  For all these reasons, Chevron’s announcement yesterday that it has turned an old refinery site in Bakersfield into a test site for several photovoltaic solar technologies is compelling news.

The electricity generated from 7,700 panels spread across eight acres will power Chevron’s oil production operations at its Kern River Field.  The company will direct any excess power to the local grid.  NamedProject Brightfield, this site will serve as a laboratory for evaluating the potential application of solar power at other Chevron facilities.  “It’s neat to be able to reuse and re-purpose the property for something as exciting as solar energy,” said Leslie Klinchuch, Project Manager for the Brightfield facility, “because we want to build more solar projects and we’ll be able to learn what worked best here and use that on other sites.”

The Brightfield Project, however, is also important because it has the potential to demonstrate that a “clean, green economy” can be a reality for the San Joaquin Valley.  Like the Midwestern US, many residents here see renewable energy and clean technologies as abstractions for which they have little use.  Agriculture relies on petroleum for fuel, fertilizer, and feed–discussion of any climate change bill scares farmers.  Talk about alternative fuels or transportation often falls on deaf ears in a region that is not as densely populated as San Francisco or Los Angeles, and comes across as lecturing from elites who have no clue about daily life in cities like Bakersfield, Fresno, and Visalia.  If renewable energy projects like that of Chevron’s succeeds and employs more locals, interest will grow for a sector that can help diversify the economy in this region.  Finally, the San Joaquin Valley certainly has the space, and sun, necessary for solar power fields, which could help reduce air pollution in such counties as Kern, Inyo, and Tulare.

Chevron’s project also provides a window into the future of renewable energy:  one that “Big Oil” may very well dominate.  It is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing projects like Brightfield as a “PR stunt” by another oil company.  Such a snap judgment, however, is short-sighted.  Having spent much of 2008 flying to Texas and speaking with energy company executives for a former employer, I participated in many conversations expressing concern over depleting oil reserves.  Many energy firms, which plan 20, even 50 years into the future, are working on incorporating renewable energy technologies into their business models.  Furthermore, research and development for technologies like solar are expensive:  and energy companies like Chevron have the capital.  Failing any feed-in tariff, carbon tax, or cap-and-trade legislation, technologies like solar must become as scalable and cost-competitive as oil.  Therefore, projects like Chevron’s Brightfield should be welcomed and encouraged, not dismissed.

The best way to gauge Chevon’s commitment, in my view, is to see what Chevron has to say about its Brightfield operations in the next few years.

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