February 25, 2012

Mojave solar-power project sacrifices the desert for the Earth

Industrial-scale solar development is well under way in California's Mojave Desert, where more than 3,500 acres of public land are being covered with BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar-power project. In the fight against climate change, the Mojave is about to take one for the team.

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar-power-plant construction site is bathed with the light from sunrise as cranes loom over the Mojave Desert and crews work to build one of facility's giant "power towers." (MARK BOSTER / MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS)

By Julie Cart
Los Angeles Times

IVANPAH VALLEY, Calif. — Construction cranes rise like storks 40 stories above the Mojave Desert. In their midst, the "power tower" emerges, wrapped in scaffolding and looking like a multistage rocket.

Clustered nearby are hangar-size assembly buildings, looming berms of sand and a chain mail of fencing that will enclose more than 3,500 public acres. Moorings for 173,500 mirrors — each the size of a garage door — are spiked into the desert floor. Before the end of the year, they will become six square miles of gleaming reflectors, sweeping from Interstate 15 to the Clark Mountains along California's eastern border.

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar-power project will soon be a humming city with 24-hour lighting, a wastewater-processing facility and a gas-fired power plant. To make room, BrightSource has mowed down a swath of desert plants, displaced dozens of animal species and relocated scores of imperiled desert tortoises, a move some experts say could kill up to one-third of the reptiles.

Despite its behemoth footprint, the Ivanpah project has slipped easily into place, unencumbered by lasting legal opposition or public outcry from California's environmental community.

The public got its chance to comment at scores of open houses, but the real political horse trading took place in meetings involving solar developers, federal regulators and leaders of some of the nation's top environmental organizations.

Away from public scrutiny, they crafted a united front in favor of utility-scale solar development, often making difficult compromises.

"I have spent my entire career thinking of myself as an advocate on behalf of public lands and acting for their protection," said Johanna Wald, a veteran environmental attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "I am now helping facilitate an activity on public lands that will have very significant environmental impacts. We are doing it because of the threat of climate change. It's not an accommodation; it's a change I had to make to respond to climate."

That unusual collaboration — along with generous federal subsidies and allotments of public land — has sparked a wholesale remodeling of the American desert.

Industrial-scale solar development is well under way in California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. The federal government has furnished more public property to this cause than it has for oil and gas exploration in the past decade: 21 million acres, more than the area of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties put together.

If only a few of the proposed projects are built, hundreds of square miles of wild land will be scraped clear. Several thousand miles of power-transmission corridors will be created.

The desert will be scarred, and no amount of mitigation will repair it, according to scores of federal and state environmental reviews.

"The scale of impacts that we are facing, collectively across the desert, is phenomenal," said Dennis Schramm, former superintendent at neighboring Mojave National Preserve. "The reality of the Ivanpah project is that what it will look like on the ground is worse than any of the analyses predicted."

In the fight against climate change, the Mojave Desert is about to take one for the team.

Not cheap energy

For decades, America's Western deserts have been dusty storehouses for government scrap, a lode for minerals, a staging ground for tanks and military maneuvers.

But the thrum of industry is afoot, bringing Space Age technology and a sense of urgency.

The BrightSource solar plant stands as an exclamation point in the desert.

The $2 billion plant is an amalgam of gadgetry designed to wring the maximum energy from the sun. Computers continually focus the field of mirrors to a center tower filled with water, which will heat to more than 1,000 degrees. The resulting steam drives an array of turbines capable of generating 370 megawatts, enough to power roughly 140,000 homes during peak hours.

Capturing a free and clean source of energy is not cheap. Solar is the Cadillac of energy, with capital costs and other market factors making it three times more expensive than natural gas or coal.

Ratepayers' bills will be up to 50 percent higher for renewable energy, according to an analysis from the consumer advocate branch of the state Public Utilities Commission.

What has opened the way for such a costly source of energy is the dramatic turn in federal policy. As early as 2005, the Bush administration established generous programs to reward renewable-energy developers. The Obama administration sweetened the pot, offering $45 billion in federal tax credits, guaranteed loans and grants.

On the state level, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger freed large solar plants from property taxes and handed out $90 million in exemptions from sales and use taxes. Under Gov. Jerry Brown, the state invested more than $70 million in clean-energy research last year, paid for by a ratepayer surcharge.

The money has sparked a land rush echoing the speculative booms in mining, railroad construction and oil and gas on Western federal land.

One of the first firms out of the gate was Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, which received $1.6 billion in federally guaranteed loans in addition to hundreds of millions in private investment.

By taking advantage of the available government subsidies, shrewd solar developers can get taxpayers to cover close to 80 percent of a multibillion-dollar project. The rest comes from investors, attracted by what amounts to a tax shelter.

Federal and state officials have used job creation to partly justify their subsidy of solar companies. During the two to three years of a solar plant's construction, most new jobs will go to union tradesmen. But after a plant is built, employment opportunities are limited.

BrightSource's Ivanpah facility is expected to employ 1,000 workers at the height of construction, but that will shrink to 86 full-time maintenance and facility workers once it is up and running.

"What troubles me is that the public has bought the whole solar expansion hook, line and sinker because it's 'renewable,' " Schramm said. "The public would be up in arms if someone was building Disneyland next to a national park."

The environmental cost

Larry LaPre, the Bureau of Land Management's wildlife biologist for much of the Mojave, said some aspects of the project have been carefully considered and painstakingly done. Other approaches, however, are "complete nonsense," among them BrightSource's experimental approach of shearing the tops of desert plants so they fit under elevated solar mirrors. The company calls it "gentle mowing."

"To get another barrel cactus, even a small one, takes 100 years," he said, driving around the Ivanpah construction site. LaPre peered through the windshield and ticked off what living things might be left after the developers finish.

"The birds are already gone. They're outta there," he said. The site "will have plants, short plants, and it will have mice and kangaroo rats and some lizards. That's it. Maybe some more common birds. The insects are an unknown, because you could have massive losses of pollinators because you have all these insects getting burned in the mirrors."

Mainstream environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have been largely mute, having traded the picket line for a seat at the table when development plans were drawn.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of the nation's most aggressively litigious environmental groups, has not challenged the Ivanpah project. It signed a confidential agreement not to oppose the project in exchange for concessions for the desert tortoise, mandating that BrightSource buy land elsewhere for conservation.

Some 24 environmental groups signed statements largely supporting the aims of solar developers.

Federal officials, solar companies and environmental groups argue that the urgency brought on by climate change has forced difficult trade-offs.

"We did the best we could," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.