There are at least two things to know about this high desert city. One, the sun just keeps on shining. Two, the city's mayor, a class-action lawyer named R. Rex Parris, just keeps on competing.
Two years ago, the mayor, a Republican, decided to leverage the incessant Antelope Valley sun so Lancaster could become the solar capital "of the world," he said. Then he reconsidered. "Of the universe," he said.
"We want to be the first city that produces more electricity from solar energy than we consume on a daily basis," he said. This means Lancaster's rooftops, alfalfa fields and parking lots must be covered with solar panels to generate a total of 126 megawatts of solar power above the 39 megawatts already being generated and the 50 megawatts under construction.
To that end, Lancaster just did what former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger failed to do in 2006: require that almost all new homes either come equipped with solar panels or be in subdivisions that produce 1 kilowatt of solar energy per house. He also recruited home building giant KB Home to proselytize for his vision, despite the industry's overall resistance to solar power.
"Lancaster is breaking new ground," said Michelle Kinman, a clean energy advocate at Environment California, a research and lobbying group. Kinman, who tracks the growth of solar energy in the state, calculates that the city tripled the number of residential installations in the past 18 months.
The lifetime costs of a large solar facility are expected to be about 15 percent more than electricity bought from the state's grid. Those projections are now roughly half of what they were five years ago, state figures show.
Around the country, photovoltaic energy is increasingly being embraced as panel prices fall. Nationally, photovoltaic generating capacity rose 76 percent in 2012, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association; more than 40 percent of the country's solar capacity of 7,700 megawatts came last year.
While the desert sunshine in California and Arizona helped put those states atop the national solar energy rankings, towns in cloudier regions are also adopting it. Napoleon, Ohio, for instance, benefits from 14 megawatts of local solar power.
But energy politics in Ohio and other Republican-run states are not solar friendly. This year Ohio's public utilities board blocked construction of a 50-megawatt solar facility on strip-mined land.
In Florida, state law prohibits third parties from installing the rooftop solar panels and then selling power to the homeowner, relieving the homeowner of large upfront costs.
It makes sense to see a city leader championing solar energy in a place like Lancaster, with some of the best solar resources in the world. But the city's long-term population has many former military families, who are largely conservative. Many newer residents are migrants from the black and Hispanic precincts of Los Angeles.
But embracing solar power is not just a matter of energy costs or reliability. It's also about jobs. Like many exurban areas in California, Lancaster was hit hard by the housing bust and the recession. The unemployment rate here is 15.5 percent. Municipal revenues declined, as did school budgets. As Parris saw it, solar power could mean lower public expenditures and more private jobs.
So solar self-sufficiency became his quest. It doesn't hurt that Parris is a showman. And while his competitive streak is seldom masked — he said his home has the biggest residential solar array in town and his new law office received LEED gold certification, a seal of approval for green buildings — the mayor couches his vision in terms of the science of complexity. "You need to be at the center" to take advantage of the forces spinning around you, he said.
His solar push began about three years ago; city hall, the performing arts center and the stadium together now generate 1.5 megawatts. Solar arrays on churches, a big medical office, a developer's office and a Toyota dealership provide 4 more.
The biggest power payoff came with the school system. A city-created municipal utility bought 32,094 panels, had them installed on 25 schools, generated 7.5 megawatts of power and then sold the enterprise to the school district for 35 percent less than it was paying for electricity at the time. Another 8 megawatts now come from systems operating at the local high school and Antelope Valley College.