JENNIFER GILL got pregnant with her first child when she was in eighth grade. She didn’t finish high school, but she got her GED during a stint in prison for forgery. For most of her working life she was a waitress in and around the town of Oildale, a suburb of Bakersfield in the southern tip of California’s Central Valley. “We come from backgrounds where minimum wage is the best we can hope for,” she says. Then, four years ago, Gill happened to see a television commercial for a solar-panel installation course at a local community college.
Within a few weeks, the 46-year-old was out in the field, helping install photovoltaic panels for the engineering behemoth Bechtel and making more than $14 an hour. She quickly got another job installing panels for another solar farm, this time for over $15 an hour. Now she’s in an apprenticeship program with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and for the first time in her life she has retirement benefits. At her urging, her younger sister, who had lost her job at a local Dollar Tree, signed up to become a solar-panel installer. Other friends followed suit. “Some of these folks have bought houses now,” Gill says.
This past fall, Gill was working at Springbok 1, a solar field on about 700 acres of abandoned Kern County farmland. In a neighboring field, workers recently broke ground on Springbok 2. A few months earlier, 35 miles south on the flat, high-desert scrubland of the Antelope Valley, workers locked into place the last of 1.7 million panels for the Solar Star Projects, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway. The panels are arrayed in neat rows across 3,200 acres, an area nearly four times the size of New York’s Central Park. In June, Solar Star began sending 579 megawatts of electricity—making it the most powerful solar farm in the world—across Southern California, where it powers the equivalent of more than a quarter of a million homes.
For over a century, Kern County made much of its money from gushing oil fields. The town of Taft still crowns an oil queen for its anniversary parade. But with the oil economy down, unemployment stands at 9.2 percent—far above the national average. Local politics remain deeply conservative. Merle Haggard, who was from Oildale, wrote his all-time biggest hit, “Okie From Muskogee,” about the place (“We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street”). Today, the region is represented in Congress by Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a cheerleader for the oil industry.
Nature, however, sculpted this landscape for solar and wind. The sun bears down almost every day, and as the valley floor heats up, it pulls air across the Tehachapi Mountains, driving the blades on towering wind turbines. For nearly eight years, money for renewable energy has been pouring in. About seven miles north of Solar Star, where sand-colored hills rise out of the desert, Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has built 126 wind turbines. French power company EDF has 330 turbines nestled in the same hills. Farther north, the Alta Wind Energy Center has an estimated 600 turbines. Together, these and other companies have spent more than $28 billion on land, equipment, and the thousands of workers needed to construct renewable-energy plants in Kern County. This new economy has created more than 1,300 permanent jobs in the region. It has also created a bonanza of more than $50 million in additional property taxes a year—about 11 percent of Kern County’s total tax haul. Lorelei Oviatt, the director of planning