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As World’s Largest Solar Thermal Plant Opens, California Looks to End Solar Wars

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In a few weeks, the largest solar plant of its kind in the world will start producing power in California’s Mojave Desert. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will supply both Northern and Southern California, inching the state one step closer to its ambitious renewable energy goal.

But like many of the large solar projects being built in the Mojave, Ivanpah ran into delays and controversy over its environmental impact. Now, in an effort to streamline the process, state officials are trying to broker an agreement between conservation groups and solar companies on a path forward for renewable energy.

Ivanpah doesn’t use the solar technology most of us think of – those dark, silicon panels sitting on rooftops. The project harnesses the sun’s heat, reflecting off a field of 170,000 mirrors. They shimmer across a dry, dusty valley about five miles away from the California-Nevada state line, surrounding three 400-foot concrete towers.

“We can keep the sun’s energy – the rays of the sun – targeted back to the solar tower,” said Dave Beaudoin, construction manager for the $2.2 billion project, originally developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy.

The garage door-sized mirrors focus the heat on giant boilers on top of the towers, where water turns into steam. That steam powers a turbine that generates electricity.

“This is definitely cutting-edge,” Beaudoin said. “It’s nothing I’ve ever done before.”

solar_power_640

Ivanpah will supply about 140,000 homes in Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison territories when it comes fully online by the end of the year. But getting to that finish line has been a rough road for the project.

It took several years to get permits from almost a dozen state, federal and local agencies. The project became political fodder after getting a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee, like the bankrupt solar company Solyndra. And then there’s the desert tortoise – the controversy that’s made Ivanpah famous.

“I didn’t have gray hairs before this project,” said Doug Davis, senior compliance manager for the project. Davis is looking at large mesh enclosures outside the field of mirrors, what he calls “Tortoise Head Start.”

“The Head Start facility is mainly for the small guys,” Davis said. “Their shells are very soft, so very susceptible to ravens.”

A desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

A desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert. (Josh Cassidy/KQED)

Desert tortoises are a threatened species, so BrightSource relocates the ones found on the construction site. Young tortoises are held until they’re big enough to release. Several dozen adults have been moved offsite and are tracked with radio tags.

BrightSource planned on finding just 35 desert tortoises when the project began, but came up with five times that number. That meant shutting down construction and doing another biological survey. “Almost every foot of our 3,500-acres, approximately, has been covered by a biologist at least ten times,” Davis said.

The relocation program has come at a cost: $55,000 per tortoise. It’s been watched closely by critics like Ileene Anderson of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups concerned over the loss of desert habitat.

“I’m not a big fan of the super-large projects,” she said. Utilities were on the hunt for large renewable energy contracts after California set a goal of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. There was a rush to get big solar farms underway to meet the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program deadlines. In addition to Ivanpah, six other major solar projects are expected to open in California over the next year.

“Many of the projects when they were first proposed and we would see the application, see where the map was, it was like ‘oh no, this is going to be a nightmare project,” said Anderson. “Put it on previously disturbed lands where there’s very few conflicts because the landscape has already been impacted.”

But other environmental groups raised concerns from another perspective: climate change, something that could harm desert wildlife in the long run.

“If you care about desert tortoises, you better care about climate change,” said Carl Zichella of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Without some large scale renewable energy projects we do not hit our climate goals. We do not replace fossil fuels with clean energy in this country. It just does not happen.”

“Even if we paved the whole California desert with solar plants, it’s not going to save the planet,” Anderson responded.

ivanpah_map_400

These differing views sparked a “green vs. green” debate between those who wanted to file lawsuits to stop projects and those who didn’t want to see solar developers driven away.

“I think it has been tough,” Zichella said. “It’s been personally painful. We are very good at stopping things. We aren’t very good at building things.”

In end, with the threat of lawsuits in the air, environmental groups negotiated with BrightSource and other developers to set aside nature preserves in the desert.

In an effort to stem the conflict, California is trying to forge a smoother path for future projects through the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan. The idea is to divvy up the desert into zones suitable for renewable energy development and conservation areas that are off-limits. Solar developers, counties, conservation groups and federal and state agencies are hashing out the comprehensive plan.

Karen Douglas of the California Energy Commission says it’s unusual to see all sides working together. “There is never any perfect consensus,” she said. “But we’ve got an opportunity with this partnership to put in place what we really think of as the ‘greenprint’ that will help us conserve our desert resources not only in the face of development but in the face of climate change.”

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Anderson. “Are they covering the right species in the plan and is it implementable? All those things are still to be determined.”

Other Western states have run into similar problems and are watching California’s effort. A full draft of the plan’s environmental review is expected this fall.

Photos: Lauren Sommer, Josh Cassidy, Gabriela Quiros/KQED

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About the Author ()

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs - all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, and NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.
  • David Lane

    put solar panels on every building’s roof

    • Kooks McGee

      then in 25 years deal with the massive amount of toxic electronic waste.

      • Jeff Chiles

        Silicon isn’t toxic waste, and most of the panel substrate can be recycled directly.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_panel#Recycling

      • Rob Canny

        Recycle

      • MorinMoss

        By then, the problem with waste from solar manufacturing will either be resolved or under control. And it’s long been and will continue to be dwarfed by the waste and resource usage from the electronics, computing & wireless industries which have very few products that are used for more than a few years before being discarded.

        The number of cell phones thrown away each year in the USA alone is over 100 million – just from phones. Now add up all the computer parts that get discarded from all sources.
        Solving that problem will solve the solar panel problem since many of the materials are the same. Not solving it means that when the panel waste comes due in a 1/4 century, you have a somewhat bigger waste problem but one you were already (not?) dealing with.

        • Jeff

          Too right, if we can’t figure out how to get rid of the enormous amounts of waste we make now, the problem in 25 years will be a small one (comparitavly speaking). Super critical water may do the trick.

  • Beorn

    HELIOS One IRL

  • TalkingMoose

    If they absorb all the light and heat on the west coast, won’t it make it colder and darker in the east? Between this and the wind farms stealing the wind, the east coast will become a dark, stagnant and frozen wasteland. Good thing they have all that coal.

    • imnotminkus

      What?

    • Kiki3579

      I hope you are being facetious.

    • Timothy McGuire

      Your joking right? No one is that stupid…

    • Glen Terry

      I can only assume that you are under the impression that the thermal energy hitting the desert somehow radiatively heats the rest of the continent. This is quite possibly the stupidest theory I’ve heard in my 42 years. May God have mercy on your soul, because if it becomes widely known that you think so, no other sane person will have mercy on you.

  • Buck Kahler

    We can re-locate the tortoise. There’s lots and lots of deserts in the world. You know what’s more fragile than a desert? EVERYWHERE ELSE IN THE WORLD. Seriously, screw deserts. Nevada needs to be America’s biggest solar array.

    • Matthew Davis

      Huh? Just because it’s not an ecosystem that people are adapted to doesn’t mean it’s a barren wasteland. And which desert are you proposing we introduce an invasive species into?

    • http://crissa.twu.net/ Crissa

      I’m not even entirely sure why they can’t share the desert with the tortoises. Sure, move them while the construction is happening, but 99% of the space under those panels isn’t going to be used.

      • Jeff

        Excellent point, maybe they need sun, -crawl to sunny spot and delete 1%of the arrays for sun exposure areas. Import ‘food’ if they need it (not sure what ‘desert turtles’ eat, or let them control the wild life that may otherwise flourish under the panels.

    • Jeff

      It may be an area rich for harvesting sun light, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water (re-locate all species). Deserts may be more finely tuned than we think, we may just be seeing the big picture when it’s made up of a collage of smaller pictures. The soil in the Amazon will grow anything (for a few years at least) and will tolerate a lot of abuse before being re-habilitated, but the desert sand (soil minus heaps of organic matter) may not afford us that luxury. Not that I’m against green power (or ‘with’ the greenies ), but preserving the eco-system as it is may be could be a wise move.

  • http://crissa.twu.net/ Crissa

    If we just put solar over every roof and parking structure it would be enough. We don’t need to pave the desert.

  • Rob Canny

    the large power companies are still scamming us on big centralized power projects. The environmentalists aren’t wrong. This is not the right direction for renewables. How about building permits that require renewable technology on new buildings and major reconstruction projects throughout the entire Southwest? With tax incentives for using American made products?

    • Bob Musselman

      Rooftop solar, while commendable, is vastly more costly per MW-hr produced than centralized PV or CSP plants. Residential and commercial solar initiatives may be fine to offset end user electricity costs, but they are not a solution to large scale burning of fossil fuels.

      • Rob

        “Rooftop solar, while commendable, is vastly more costly per MW-hr produced than centralized PV or CSP plants.” Really? Are you including the profits that these large power companies are paying to their stock holders? Are you also including the cost of administering said centralised supply and the bureaucracy that goes with it?

        • Bob Musselman

          Yes. You think residential and commercial rooftop solar is a different economic model than utility scale solar? Both models are for-profit, both involve similar supply chain partners–component manufacturers at many levels, project companies that either plan large projects or sell thousands of small projects, financial companies that loan the money to put the projects in place (note that a large percentage of residential solar is leased), installation contractors and operating contractors. The main difference is that every residential and commercial project has to be sold separately, planned separately, and every one is unique and requires some degree of engineering, and a separate link to the grid. That increases the incremental cost per MW-hr produced. You point to “cost of administering supply.” Trust me, there is far more administration in planning 100,000 unique rooftop projects at 1500 We each, than 1 utility scale project at 150 MWe.

          • lbmouse

            You are forgetting one very important point, economy of scale.

          • Rob

            There are too many variables to make those assumptions. For sure supplying a town with decentralised power is going to cost more than everyone going in for their own system. However if you include rural areas and the fact that centralised power will generally run AC, whereas small holdings can run on DC if they accept low power appliances.

          • Wells

            Rooftop PV solar systems can substantially improve existing grid efficiency. When combined with plug-in electric vehicle battery packs, they store surplus and intermittent electricity, and increase supply during peak demand hours. Utility companies oppose giving customers a choice to use electricity for household purposes or for driving, which leads to less driving and more trips possible without having to drive. Households with rooftop PV solar gain the means to more closely monitor and reduce household consumption overall. Utility companies would rather build subsidized energy production & storage systems they can control even though rooftop solar would be a lifesaver in emergencies and grid failure. Monopoly is spelled with a P, a G and an E.

      • Rob Canny

        Notice I didn’t say rooftop solar. I said renewables, which is quite a long list of modern technology that can be applied as a solution to different problems. It may include solar or more than likely a combination of solutions suited to the climate the building is located in.
        There is passive technology which consumes no energy. And you haven’t included charging electrical vehicles in your analysis either. How much would that impact fossil fuel use if everybody in the Southwest charged their car up at home from rooftop solar?
        Also, rooftop solar isn’t just for producing electricity, it is also for heating water which eliminates the need for natural gas.
        You have a narrow, out of date view of renewables. You need to educate yourself on the new 21st century energy technologies.

        • Jeff

          Expensive? Please define that economically (I know some ‘greenies’ want hugely expensive plans that make no economical, or logical, sense so please don’t use these) in a normal setting. NOT a department of defense F.R.E.D./F.U.B.A.R./S.N.A.F.U. operation to stop oil being sold in Euros rather than US$, resulting in the above mentioned price, and not the one you pay at the pump. In Aus we pay $1.59 for a LITRE of fuel, call me when you have to pay $6.02 a GALLON for 91 octane (R.O.N, not P.O.N.) unleaded (R.O.N. is lower than P.O.N., which is (RON+MON/2), a rough idea: $8.50 per GALLON at the pump for low octane unleaded. Anyway, I digress, solar is a great idea even on a small scale, if only to off-set the demand peaks. In Aus we have “Earth Hour” where all the un-nescessary electrical loads are switched off. A great start for being energy aware, but the coal and natural gas plants can’t ‘throttle down’ fast enough and then ‘throttle up’ again in time, they just keep going at ‘normal’ pace, and we light candles to see where we are going. If all homes were fitted with, for arguments sake, 75% electrical generation (with a small (small, because large storeage systems are a waste night-mare at the end of life)) then only relatively small fossil fuel plants would be required to take-up the slack. Further more carbon in its natural state is not, apart from a green house gas, intrinsically harmful to the environment ie. CO2, and, unless made into a more complex molecule (not generally done by the burning of fossil (Hydrogen+Carbon chain molecules) fuel) harmful to humans.

    • http://muckrack.com/dotcommodity Susan Kraemer

      California already has new building code requirements that all new roofs be ‘solar ready’; this means eliminating all the things that make solar impossible, like vents in the wrong places.

      If you ever do estimates for residential solar (as I have done) you find out pretty quickly that 90% of all buildings will not be able to go solar, either because have shadows, have trees, have little gables facing the wrong way, or the owners think solar is ugly or they are too stupid to understand the savings, or the building occupants love solar but they rent so they can’t put solar on the roof, etc.

      We actually need both, I put in solar in 2010, and think it’s great on houses. But my experience taught me that the utility-scale plants will get us to climate protection much faster.

      • Rob Canny

        Thanks for your reply Susan. It was very informative. I’m actually very happy about the new solar plant getting up and running today.

    • Jeff

      Why American products, the biggest polluters are the American companies. 4 weeks to make a simple ‘bell’ for the oil leak in Florida that didn’t ‘work’ blamed on BP (I know main contractor and all, but not American so blame them, when has the US ever been at fault!!!????????), try Halliburton. In Australia they would have had a ‘bell’ made within 24 hours and containment booms in place, and no dispersants (detergents) that only emulsify the oil below the water surface but the ‘triple’ redundancy probably would have worked, avoiding the problem in the first place.

  • Jose Michael Cano

    This should prove to be minimally intrusive, from an ecological perspective. Although a lot of land is used and covered, there are no leaking chemicals or spent fuel to worry about. No groundwater or soil pollution whatsoever.

  • wandagb

    Meanwhile California adds hundreds of thousands of new electricity users, aka immigrants, and their offspring every year.

    Why do we continue to worship and accept growth instead of looking to reduce population growth for a change? It can and must be done …

    http://www.capsweb.org

  • LiveWire

    We also need to research piezoelectric wind stalks for windy areas. Great idea; I’m hoping they’ll work.

  • Wells

    Rooftop PV solar panel systems can substantially improve existing grid efficiency when combined with plug-in electric vehicle battery packs that store surplus and intermittent electricity and increase supply during peak demand hours. Utility companies oppose giving customers a choice to use electricity for household purposes or for driving, which leads to less driving and more trips possible without having to drive. Utility companies would rather build subsidized energy storage systems they can control even though rooftop solar would be a lifesaver in emergencies and grid failure. Households with rooftop PV solar also gain the means to monitor and reduce household consumption overall. “No can do,” say utility board members and stockholders.

    • Wells

      As for plug-in EVs, plug-in hybrids have more advantages and benefits than all-battery EVs and hydrogen fuel cell nonsense.
      The hybrid advantage can be compared to California’s high-speed rail project. There is no real need to run all electric to attain 200mph for a 3-hour trip from LA to San Francisco. A hybrid locomotive with a top speed of 135mph offers a 5-hour trip (not bad considering Amtrak’s Coast Starlighter is 11 hours); cuts the HSR project cost in half; reduces massive impact of concrete viaduct; can run all-electric through urban areas and tunnels and in rural areas the environmental benefit of electric operation is moot. The California HSR need not be electrified between Stockton and Los Angeles. Fresno conservatives have no interest in finishing the HSR project after they’ve drained the public treasury to build a 200mph train to Nowhere-uh Madera.

  • Terry A. Davis

    still pulling psy-ops shit. still in denial on God.

  • Carlos Gustavo Pérez

    Caracas,
    June 26, 2014.

    Gentlemen

    http://www.narnea.org

    Present.

    I, Carlos Gustavo Perez, Venezuelan, of this city, with CI: 642,834,
    President of the Company “Creativity Workshop The TCR Shoots, C.
    A”. Very respectfully writing to establish a real, sincere and
    friendly contact.

    My grandparents parents, since 1939 (Government of President Medina
    Angarita), in Falcon State, Municipality Falcon, located in the sea
    coast between the towns of Adicora and Buchuaco of Venezuela, have
    been leading the Mixed Farms, of those territories, what only now are
    some sheds (four in total), two very destroyed and two invaded.
    However, the potential of the territories of about 10 kilometers long
    in total, for 500 linear meters wide, allow solar energy
    installations.

    The quality of solar radiation can be checked by the same system for
    geothermal maps.

    In this short explanation, I will endeavor to establish with you the
    best of relationships.

    Very cordially.

    Dr. Carlos Gustavo Pérez.

    For TCR, C. A “.

    E-mail:

    acgper11@yahoo.es

    carlosgper@gmail.com

    Cell:
    0414-9110006.

    Traducción:

    Caracas,
    26 de junio de 2014.

    Señores:

    http://www.narnea.org

    Presente.

    Yo.
    Carlos Gustavo Pérez, venezolano, de esta ciudad, con CI: 642.834,
    Presidente de la Empresa “Taller de Creatividad Los Retoños
    TCR, C. A”. Muy respetuosamente les escribo para establecer un
    contacto real, sincero y cordial.

    Mis padres abuelos, desde 1939 (Gobierno del Presidente Angarita Medina),
    en el Estado Falcón, Municipio Falcón, en las costa marinas
    ubicadas entre los poblados de Adicora y Buchuaco de Venezuela, han
    estado dirigiendo las Granjas Mixtas, de aquellos territorios, de lo
    que solo ahora quedan unos galpónes (cuatro en total), dos muy
    destruidos y dos invadidos. Sin embargo el potencial de los
    territorios de unos 10 kilómetros de longitud en total, por un 500
    mts lineales de ancho, permitirían instalaciones de Energía Solar.

    La calidad de las radiaciones solares se puede comprobar por el mismo
    sistema de Mapas para Geotermicas.

    En esta corta explicación, va mi empeño en establecer con ustedes la
    mejor de las relaciones.

    Muy cordialmente.

    Dr. Carlos
    Gustavo Pérez.

    Por TCR,
    C. A”.

    E-mail:

    acgper11@yahoo.es

    carlosgper@gmail.com

    Celular:
    0414-9110006.