I happened to be down in Coalinga last weekend to attend the annual Horned Toad Festival, and I got a good look at a solar power plant there. If anyplace is right for a solar plant, it’s Coalinga, because the sun shines brightly there in just the right amounts to make solar power almost a sure thing. Which is a little ironic, because Coalinga is a town that owes its existence to fossil fuels.
Look at the name of the city: Coal-inga. That is a made-up word based on the fact that Coalinga was once a coaling station for steam engines on the railroad that ran through there. It was Coaling Station A in railroad parlance, where coal was brought down from the hills and bunkered so the trains could take on fuel. As people are wont to do, they foreshortened the name over the years to Coaling-A, or Coalinga. Today, it is pronounced Kuh-LINga, with the days of coal just a dim memory.
Besides, they discovered oil in them there hills, and Coalinga became a prosperous oil-patch town. When you drive into the city from the east, the roads take you through forests of two-story-high oil pumps, some of them painted like animals. When the weather is just right, you can smell the sulfur in the air. Some might find that odor disagreeable, but I’ve always found it quite pleasant. Of course, I’d find it even more pleasant if I owned one of the wells.
The above-named solar plant is owned by one of the oil companies, and it generates electricity to operate the pumps that move oil around, getting it ready to send it off to a refinery. You might ask, “Why do they use solar for this electricity? Why don’t they just buy it from the power company?”
The reasons probably are numerous: Good public relations with the enviros, and government policy that makes the power company buy any electricity the solar plant generates that isn’t used.
It isn’t because of efficiency, though. In terms of energy production, solar is still far behind the burning of fossil fuels. If it wanted to, the oil company could burn its own oil and generate more electricity for less money than it spends on solar.
But with the solar plant, everybody’s happy — especially the ones who own the oil wells.