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High Noon

As the climate warms, environmentalists square off over Big Solar’s claim to the Mojave Desert


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"If you put a system on your roof you can sell every electron of that at a premium rate," he says. "Cities that have done it find out that it only raises electric rates a little every month."

People who continue to insist, in spite of all Harvey's carefully marshaled evidence, that we cannot quickly reduce the planet-warming carbon in the atmosphere without the help of industrial-scale solar plants - people like Carl Zichella, the Sierra Club's director of Western Renewable Programs - make Harvey furious. "Carl Zichella says that rooftop solar is 'no solution at all,'" Harvey hisses, referring to a quote Zichella gave the New York Times.

Harvey has one word for him: Germany.

BrightSource's proposed $3 billion Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station consists of three concentrating solar thermal power plants, each of which uses thousands of seven-by-10-foot sun-tracking mirrors, called "heliostats," to focus the sun's energy on a tower, where, just like any conventional fossil-fuel plant, heat turns water into steam that spins turbines. (Other kinds of concentrating solar plants use "parabolic troughs," heating liquid by focusing curved mirrors on pipes lower to the ground.)

An ingenious but relatively primitive technology, concentrating solar power, or CSP, costs an average of 15 cents per kilowatt hour over a plant's 30-year lifetime, roughly half the current cost of photovoltaics, which turn the sun's radiation directly into electricity. It has been heralded as "the technology that will save humanity" by physicist Joseph Romm, a veteran of the Clinton Energy Department and author of a book about global warming called Hell and High Water. "I don't believe any set of technologies will be more important to the climate fight," he wrote on his blog at ClimateProgress.org.

Compared to other forms of energy, CSP needs a lot of land - approximately 8.5 acres per megawatt, 17 times as much land as a nuclear plant needs to generate the same amount of electricity. Constructing the Ivanpah solar plant would require grading more than six square miles clean of vegetation, leveling 100-year-old cactuses and creosote along with 202 specimens of a rare desert plant known as Mojave milkweed - 80 percent of the known population, as well as 11 other rare plants unique to the Mojave. It would require rerouting ephemeral creeks and washes that carry runoff from the Clark Mountains into Ivanpah Dry Lake during the desert's sometimes ferocious winter storms.