Protesters Shell Mojave Solar Plant

Oakland’s BrightSource Energy and Environmentalists throw down over a threatened tortoise

What some have billed as the world’s largest solar project in the Mojave came under fire again today. This time a baby desert tortoise led the charge with a cohort of environmentalists. While the tortoise provided a slow-motion picket around downtown Oakland, protestors lined up in front of BrightSource Energy’s corporate headquarters, determined to preserve the Mojave desert and keep solar projects local.

A baby desert tortoise stakes out a position outside BrightSource Energy headquarters in Oakland. (Photo: Chris Penalosa)

At risk of habitat loss from the project, the tortoise is becoming the iconic image for preservation of the Mojave. The Bureau of Land Management put the brakes on two-thirds of the Ivanpah solar farm when field biologists found more tortoises than initially expected. Tortoises found on site are being relocated and fenced off, preventing their gradual return. Continue reading

First Federal Approvals for Big Solar

UPDATE: Since this post was first published, the BLM has also given the nod to another major solar energy installation, the approximately 400-megawatt Ivanpah project, being developed in San Bernardino County by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy.

The federal Bureau of Land Management today issued its first approvals of major solar energy projects in California.

The Tessera project will use "SunCatchers" to concentrate solar power. (Image: Tessera Solar)

Tessera Energy’s 700-megawatt Ocotillo project, located in the Imperial Valley, about 100 miles east of San Diego, and a smaller photovoltaic (PV) project by San Ramon-based Chevron Corp., are both cleared to go forward.

The two projects set a precedent not just for California. On a call with reporters this morning, Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called it a “historic day,” saying the two projects “bear the distinction of being the first large-scale solar energy projects ever approved for construction on our nation’s public lands.” Continue reading

Supersizing Solar

Kramer JunctionMonday begins the radio component of Climate Watch, with the first of a two-part series on “solar realities.” (Click here for the second part of the series). Solar power is one of those renewable, low-carbon sources of energy that is enjoying a boom, as we scramble to reduce the state’s carbon footprint and, with any luck, slow down the climate change train.

But one of the thornier realities of utility-scale solar is that it has its own footprint. In fact, in terms of the sheer real estate that it gobbles up, you could say it’s the Sasquatch of renewables.

David Gorn begins our series on Monday morning’s edition of The California Report. Here’s a page from his reporter’s journal:

My girlfriend couldn’t believe it. “You’re going WHERE? The middle of the Mojave Desert? In August?”

And she looked up the temperature out there in Kramer Junction, California. She’s so helpful that way. The web page said it would be a high of 121 degrees Fahrenheit. But the reality was much better; the area was going through a “cold snap” the week I went, and it was only 106.

Still, that’s hot enough to fry eggs on the hood of your car, and it’s hot enough to power some of the largest solar reflectors in the world. In fact, because of the dearth of cloud cover, the searing heat and the higher elevation (~2,500 feet), the Mojave is one of the best places on Earth for solar power generation.

Out at Kramer Junction, the solar power-generating plant uses solar troughs to collect the heat. There are about 10,000 of these modules, 20 mirrors to a module, spread out over a million square meters.  That’s about 1,000 acres.

The new plant that’s proposed for the Mojave city of Ivanpah, near the Nevada border, will be about three times that size. The entire thing would cover about 5 square miles.  When it’s built, it may be the largest solar power generating site in the world, depending on the pace of some other planned projects.

There are actually three other proposals for even larger solar plants in California, but those are not yet under review by the Bureau of Land Management. And one of them is out in the Imperial Valley, where there are currently no transmission lines in place.

You can peruse the major Mojave sites on our interactive map. The California Energy Commission has the complete list of existing and proposed large solar arrays.

Listen to David’s story on super-sized solar sites here.