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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.

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Unlike rooftop solar panels, which directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal plants concentrate the sun's rays with mirrors or lenses to boil water to create steam; the steam then turns turbines that generate electricity. Ivanpah consists of three separate power plants, each with a 459-foot-tall "power tower" and tens of thousands of mirror-like "heliostats" — 173,500 in all. While land has been cleared for the construction site, BrightSource has taken pains to leave much of the native vegetation intact. Thousands of pylons protrude from the ground amid vegetation that has been trimmed, but not plowed.

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"This has the lowest environmental impact of any project in solar," BrightSource CEO John Woolard said in remarks to media members who toured the project. "We're using a minimal amount of water, and there is low impact on the soil and terrain."

But Jim Andre, a botanist and plant ecologist at the University of California-Riverside, says native plants will not survive under the newly created shade. "You're altering the conditions that the species have evolved in," he said. "It goes against conservation biology 101."

The biggest environmental controversy at Ivanpah is the endangered desert tortoise. Though BrightSource expects to spend at least $45 million on everything from salaries for biologists to the purchase of thousands of acres of conservation habitat, activists worried about the tortoise protested outside the company's Oakland, Calif., headquarters.

While alienating some environmentalists, Big Solar has many supporters among the ranks of the state's unemployed. Ivanpah is a welcome source of jobs in San Bernardino County, which has been hit hard by the housing crash. Iraq War veterans Ross Bowlin and Kenneth Platten carpool more than 200 miles from their homes near Riverside, Calif., to get to Ivanpah, and they share an inexpensive hotel room in Nevada during the workweek. Both obtained their jobs via "Helmets to Hardhats," an apprentice program that helps veterans transition to careers in the construction trades.

"Before this job I had no construction experience at all, and I was on unemployment for a while," said Bowlin, a former Marine who served two stints in Iraq. "But this job reminds me of being in the military, in that we have a job that's bigger than ourselves. We're facing an energy crisis."

Platten, who served in the Army, misses the adrenaline rush of war but says the sheer scale of Ivanpah gives him a different kind of thrill. The good wages — about $35 an hour — help make up for the long drive. In addition, he's used to the desert heat: the deserts of Iraq are even hotter than the Mojave.

"We're building the biggest solar thermal power plant in the world," he said, as he surveyed the power tower. "To see this going up is amazing. I can look out and know that I hauled some of that iron, and that's cool."

Ivanpah is not BrightSource's only project. The company has filed applications with the California Energy Commission to build two other large solar power plants: the 500-megawatt Hidden Hills project, in California's Inyo County, and the 750-megawatt Rio Mesa project in Riverside County.

"There's so many companies submitting plans and filing for permits that it's hard to keep track," said Laura Cunningham of Basin and Range Watch, a volunteer group fighting "energy sprawl."

"You basically have a few dozen activists trying to protect this huge desert," she said. "Each solar project is on a different type of ecosystem, and there hasn't been a lot of planning. It's been, 'There's sun, let's build a power plant.' "

Cunningham grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to a rural mining town in southern Nevada 10 years ago. A biologist and reptile expert, she has grown to love the desert, and the sense of calm and wonder it inspires.

"You can go into the desert and feel like you are the only person in the world," she said. "And yet it's teeming with life: jack rabbits, burrowing owls, rattlesnakes. In the spring, we have the most spectacular wildflowers, and the whole desert erupts in blossoms."

In an effort to resolve conflicts between solar companies and conservationists, California is developing a Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan to decide which parts of the desert will be open for renewable energydevelopment and which parts will be protected.

"Initially, all of these big solar projects were being crammed down our throats," said Ileene Anderson, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is active in the conservation plan's process. "But now the state is realizing that you can't just bully projects into being — you have to take a close look at where they are sited. Climate change is real, and we have to transition to renewable energy. But let's do it without driving species to extinction."