Last December, I flew to Phoenix, rented a car and drove two hours west on Interstate 10 to Blythe, Calif., a sun-baked town of 13,000 on the lower Colorado River surrounded by orange groves and irrigated farmland. In the winter, this area attracts tens of thousands of snowbirds, many of whom park their recreational trailers along dirt roads in the desert and tool around in all-terrain vehicles. I hadn’t come to see them, though. I wanted to learn about another new arrival, an international consortium called Solar Millennium LLC, which is building a 7,000-acre solar power generating station just outside town.
Pulling off the highway near the city’s airport, I find little more evidence of the project than a wooden sign half-hidden in the brush and some surveyors’ stakes. It doesn’t look like much now, but when the plant is fully built out in 2014, long curved mirrors called parabolic troughs will focus sunlight on oil-filled tubes that transfer heat to steam generators. The four linked plants—the largest solar complex in the world, by some estimates—are expected to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 300,000 single-family homes.
Tourists and truckers crisscrossing the California desert are usually in a hurry to get somewhere else—Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix or Las Vegas. For hours on end, they gaze out on endless waves of withered, yellow-green creosote brush lapping up against sere mountain slopes, broken up here and there by low-lying dry lakebeds ...