December 17, 2009

1,000 skilled laborers to get work building new solar plant

Environmentalists to get $1 million per tortoise

Joe Nelson
San Bernardino Sun

About 1,000 skilled laborers from across San Bernardino County will be recruited to work on the world's largest solar complex near the Nevada border under a labor agreement ratified Thursday between the builder and California labor unions.

BrightSource Energy and Bechtel Corp., both located in the Bay Area, have teamed up to develop and build the Ivanpah Solar Electricity Generating System in the Ivanpah dry lake bed, east of the 15 Freeway and north of the Mojave National Preserve, about five miles southwest of Primm, Nev.

Construction of the 440-megawatt complex, which officials say will nearly double the amount of commercial solar electricity produced in the U.S., is slated to begin in late spring or early summer 2010 and wrap up in mid-2012.

It will be the first major solar project in California in two decades.

The solar complex will generate an estimated $400 million in local and state tax revenues over the plant's 30-year life cycle, and $250 million in construction wages from 2010 to 2012, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said.

"There's going to be a big boom here. There's going to be a lot of economic benefits," Wachs said.

On Thursday, Bechtel entered into the labor agreement with the Riverside & San Bernardino Counties Building and Construction Trades Council and the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California (SBCTC).

"This project is a great example of how the new green technology is now providing real jobs for thousands of workers," said SBCTC President Robert Balgenorth in a statement.
William Perez, executive secretary/business manager for the Riverside and San Bernardino Counties Building and Construction Trades Council in Riverside, said the agreement will pull skilled laborers from across the county.

Laborers will be dispatched out of San Bernardino, Victorville and Barstow, carpenters and millwrights out of Ontario, electricians out of San Bernardino and Victorville, teamsters and boilermakers out of Bloomington, cement masons and pipefitters out of Colton, ironworkers out of San Bernardino and operating engineers and surveyors out of Redlands, Perez said.

"Everybody going out there would be referred out of those hiring halls," Perez said.

But first, Bechtel must complete the permitting process through the California Energy Commission and Bureau of Land Management.

The project also needs to clear some environmental hurdles. Public hearings on the draft environmental impact study began this week.

Wildlife biologists found 25 desert tortoises during the study. BrightSource will pay more than $25 million to mitigate the impact on desert tortoise habitat. The 25 tortoises will be relocated to land next to the project site, Wachs said.

BrightSource claims there are no endangered species on the project site and that the 4,000-acre swath of open desert is flat and needs no grading. The only grading needed, Wachs said, will be for roads and the plant's power block.

"We feel that we have a very thoughtful mitigation strategy in place that will serve as a model for other projects that follow," Wachs said of the environmental study.

But not everyone is thrilled with the project.

San Bernardino County Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district includes most of the High Desert region, opposes the project because he feels it has too severe an impact on the environment and will benefit Las Vegas's economy more than San Bernardino County's.

"The natural labor pool for that area is the greater Las Vegas metropolitan area, and I don't think that's something can be changed, but I do think it can be offset by this labor agreement ... " Mitzelfelt said. "I haven't seen the agreement, so I don't know how binding it is and how effective it may be."

He questioned the number of desert tortoises found during the environmental study.

"It is very difficult to find 25 tortoises. They're a threatened species. In my opinion, that's a lot of tortoises," Mitzelfelt said.

Having to set aside 12,000 acres of land for tortoise habitat mitigation could affect other proposed projects for the Mojave Desert, which may have a hard time finding land of their own for mitigation purposes if so much has already been chewed up by BrightSource, Mitzelfelt said.

The county supervisor also has concerns about visual impacts. Seven 459-foot-high power towers are planned for the complex, each crowned with a 60-foot-high boiler that will glow bright white throughout the day.

"We're talking about seven 459-foot towers, the top 60 feet of which will glow like giant lightbulbs and you've got millions of cars driving past those," Mitzelfelt said. "They're probably going to be the tallest structures in the whole county."

By comparison, the Morongo Casino Resort and Spa in Cabazon is about 300-feet tall, said Andrew Silva, Mitzelfelt's field representative.

Mitzelfelt said about 90 percent of the power generated from Ivanpah will serve the San Francisco Bay Area, not San Bernardino County.

"It's not a benefit to our region. It's a benefit to the state, perhaps," Mitzelfelt said.