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Clean energy 'gold rush' in Mojave spurs backlash

Clean energy projects in California are thriving. But environmentalists worry about impact of clean energy companies on Mojave Desert.

By Dana HullSan Jose Mercury News/MCT / October 31, 2011

A rendering of how heliostats will look on the proposed Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System site. BrightSource's technology design allows the solar field to coexist with existing vegetation, but environmentalists worry about the impact of clean energy companies on the Mojave Desert.

Photo illustration/Business Wire

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MOJAVE DESERT, Calif.

At first glance, the vast Mojave Desert seems barren: mile after mile of dust, sand and scrubby creosote bush under a blistering sun. But the huge desert, which spans an area larger than West Virginia, is becoming speckled with gigantic solar power plants that are creating hundreds of construction jobs and, when complete, will generate electricity for millions of homes.

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California's Solar Gold Rush is under way, fueled by billions of dollars of federal stimulus funding and a new state law that requires utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

While the collapse of Fremont, Calif., solar manufacturer Solyndra Inc. has dominated the news in recent weeks because it received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, several other solar companies that got loan guarantees appear to be thriving.

The project furthest along is BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which has been under construction for one full year and is currently being built on federal land near the California-Nevada border with the help of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee. BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, uses mirrors to concentrate the sun and turn turbines that generate electricity. When complete in 2013, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 140,000 homes.

Currently, more than 800 construction workers are on the sprawling 3,600-acre site. The steel shell of a massive tower that eventually will be taller than coastal redwood trees is rising from the dust near a parking lot filled with cars, trucks and construction vehicles. Most of the workers arrive before dawn to beat the searing late-afternoon heat, and engineering managers pore over plans in air-conditioned trailers.

Ivanpah is one of nine solar thermal power plants approved by the California Energy Commission last year. In addition, scores of other solar projects are in the pipeline. In August, the federal Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for 17 solar power plants in California's deserts.

Solar currently accounts for less than 1 percent of the state's electricity, most of which comes from natural gas, two nuclear power plants and hydropower. But advocates — including California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat — want solar to play a key role in the state's energy future, in part because each project generates hundreds of construction jobs. Brown hopes to add 20,000 megawatts of renewable generation — about one-third of the state's current power needs — to California's electric grid by the end of the decade.

"We use a lot of energy in California, and we have aspirations to electrify our vehicle fleet, our ports and to develop high-speed rail," Commissioner Karen Douglas of the California Energy Commission said. "We need significant amounts of utility-scale renewable electricity."

But critics and grassroots organizations such as Solar Done Right fear the West's last remaining tracts of pristine public lands are being industrialized by "Big Solar" in the name of clean energy, bringing irreparable harm to native plants and threatened species. They want "smart from the start" planning that allows renewable energy development in some parts of the desert while protecting the rest as conservation land. They want people to know that California's deserts are as beloved to some residents as its beaches, parks and redwood trees are to others.

"There's plenty of desert out there — just put it in the right place," said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization that opposes the proposed 4,613-acre Calico Solar Project east of Barstow, Calif., because of its effects on desert tortoises, burrowing owls and bighorn sheep. "It's a lot like real estate: location, location, location."

The Ivanpah facility embodies many of the hopes and fears of solar power plants in the desert. It will generate 370 megawatts of electricity, which BrightSource says will displace 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the plant's 30-year life. Google Inc. has invested $168 million in the project, while utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to purchase the electricity.

"Solar thermal technology projects like Ivanpah are playing a vital role in helping us meet our state renewable goals while providing for a secure and sustainableenergy future," Fong Wan, senior vice president for energy procurement at PG&E, said in a statement.