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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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Such location-related cost and efficiency issues could decide whether industrial-scale solar thermal gets off the ground in the U.S., or meets the same fate it did in decades past. Back in the 1980s, Arnold Goldman, who founded BrightSource as Luz International, oversaw the construction of nine plants in the Mojave, totaling 354 megawatts. But he and other solar developers abandoned their plans when energy prices dropped and federal tax breaks expired. Since then, the company has built only a few small plants, including a 1.5 megawatt demonstration facility in Israel's Negev Desert.

The faltering economy could again stall large-scale solar projects. "It's hard for renewables to compete with conventional energy," says Arthur Haubenstock, BrightSource's director of regulatory affairs -- especially if you're "trying to do it in the most ecological and environmental way possible." Following the BLM's recommendation for desert solar plants, the three Ivanpah generators will use air instead of water to condense used steam and return water to the boiler. The process, called "dry-cooling," costs more and reduces efficiency, but also cuts water use by 90 percent - a necessity in a land of little rain and already overdrawn aquifers.

Haubenstock says the company is counting on the $60 billion embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help the industry along. It has raised $160 million in investments from Google, Chevron, Morgan Stanley and British Petroleum, and has secured two contracts, one to provide 900 megawatts of solar-generated power to Pacific Gas and Electric, and another for 1,300 megawatts with Southern California Edison.

Yet even with the investments and contracts, it makes little financial sense for BrightSource CEO John Woolard to negotiate for land with a variety of private landowners - who, in the current market, can get as much as $10,000 an acre - when the company can access public land through federal leases or a land-exchange program at around $700 per acre. "Private landowners can hold land hostage," says Haubenstock.

Then again, private landowners can also streamline energy development when it suits them, and might offer a simpler solution. The Desert Protective Council's Larry Hogue, who tracks the renewable energy land rush on his Desert Blog, cites a concentrating solar thermal plant to be constructed by Spain's Abengoa Solar for Arizona Public Service as an early example of responsible land management. The project still faces many hurdles, including financing, but a lengthy review complicated by squabbling environmentalists is not among them. The project will occupy three square miles of privately owned land on a former alfalfa field in Gila Bend, Ariz., 70 miles from Phoenix.