Earthshots: Satellite Images of Environmental Change

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» Antelope Valley, California, USA
 

Antelope Valley in southern California is the western part of the Mojave Desert. The San Gabriel Mountains and the Tehachapi Mountains give the valley a triangular shape. The southern edge of the valley is the San Andreas Fault.

While farming is going on in the valley in the more traditional sense, with irrigated fields showing up as bright green circles or rectangles in these Landsat images, farming of a different kind is also going on. With average annual wind speeds of 14 to 20 miles per hour and plenty of clear, sunny days, this part of the desert is on the cutting edge of wind and solar power.

The Hyundai-Kia Motors California Proving Ground

Map of the featured area.

The open spaces and high winds make the northern part of Antelope Valley an ideal wind energy center. It’s also close to Los Angeles, so the length and cost of transmission lines is relatively low.

Most of these turbines are grouped around the Tehachapi Pass, where air flow from the Pacific Ocean funnels through the Tehachapi Mountains.

Throughout this series of Landsat images, displayed in natural color, new lines are etched in the landscape, like a giant geoglyph. These roads connect to bright spots indicating the locations of wind towers. Most appeared between 2010 and 2014, but many new towers were built in the northern portion of the images at the foothills of the mountain range between 2014 and 2018.

The first wind towers, which stood 45 to 60 feet tall, were built in this region in the 1980s. New wind towers are up to 500 feet tall and each produce 1 to 2.4 megawatts of power.

The United States Wind Turbine Database shows locations and owners of every wind turbine in the U.S. According to the viewer, the number of wind turbines in this part of the Landsat images is 4,000 with a rated capacity of 2,557 megawatts (as of January 2019).

After 2010, solar farms began spreading out in various places across the desert. The region has plenty of clear, sunny days, so solar energy makes its mark on the landscape (and energy grid) along with wind power. As of 2018, about 1.7 million photovoltaic panels are spread across the valley, with a combined generating capacity of 579 megawatts. Many of the locations of the solar plants are on land that had been farmed with irrigated water for decades and was unlikely to revert to its natural desert state.

Nearby, the city of Lancaster is working to install solar panels on the rooftops of all municipal buildings and schools in the city. In 2013, the city council took that idea a step further. They voted to require all new homes to have a basic solar energy system. At the end of 2018, a new California state law was approved—effective 2020, all new homes statewide will have to include solar panels.

A population boom began in this region in the 1980s with increases in defense spending—military and aerospace industries became the area’s primary employers. A recession in the early 1990s slowed this growth along with defense spending cuts. The population recovered and grew once again but slowed with the 2008 recession. The population has again since rebounded.

Many residents of Antelope Valley now commute to the Los Angeles area. The cost of living is lower and many enjoy living in the smaller urban areas.

Despite drifting with the ups and downs of economic trade winds, these Landsat images display this urban growth. These images use near-infrared and shortwave infrared imaging to emphasize the expansion of streets and buildings. Roads and structures are purple, and mottled green areas are residential neighborhoods. Bright green circles and rectangles are farm fields, while the darker shapes on the left side of the 2018 image are solar panels.

The two major cities visible in these images are Lancaster and Palmdale. Lancaster has seen a 234% increase in population since 1980. Palmdale has grown by a whopping 1,183% since 1980.

Lancaster population table          Palmdale population table

References

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