Las Vegas-bound travelers nearing the Nevada border rarely take notice of the vast, empty stretch of the Mojave Desert surrounding them. But that may soon change.
On Wednesday, ground is to be broken for a massive solar thermal plant spanning about 3,600 acres and involving 346,000 mirrors, each about the size of a billboard.
Not only will the plant be highly visible to travelers on I-15, it also will be closely watched — and probably copied — by solar developers. Many developers are angling to start their solar projects by the end of the year, when a federal program that could cover up to 30% of the construction costs is due to expire.
The nearly $2-billion project is the first of its kind to be built on federal land and also the first to have slogged through myriad environmental, financial and technical issues that future solar projects are likely to face as well.
“There are so many precedents being set, since we’re the first ones through the hoop on this,” said Todd Stewart, the development manager for the project, known as the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.
To many, the project represents the clean energy and employment bonanza that California needs. More than 400 people — including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar — are expected to attend the ground-breaking festivities at a golf course near the dusty border town of Primm, Nev.
Not everyone is thrilled. Environmentalists fought the project for years, concerned about its effect on the habitat of a rare tortoise. Others see the developer, Oakland-based BrightSource Energy Inc., as just another “Big Solar” corporation chasing down profits on the public dime.
“It’s the old centralized robber-baron monopoly model,” said Sheila Bowers, an activist with the advocacy group Solar Done Right. “This is the worst way to go about getting clean energy — it’s slow, it’s remote, it’s devastating to the environment, and taxpayers are footing most of the bill.”
Construction of the facility, perched on the eastern edge of San Bernardino County, is expected to be completed in 2013.
The installation will be in three phases, each with roughly 116,000 mirrors arranged in circles around a 460-foot-tall “power tower.” The mirrors, or heliostats, focus the sun’s rays onto the tower. The heat turns fluid inside the tower into steam, powering a turbine.
The plant is expected to produce 370 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes. The power will be sold to Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Unlike most solar projects — there are dozens on the drawing board in California — BrightSource has most of the financing and the purchase agreements with electric utilities in hand, as well as hard-won approval from regulators.
“It’s pretty symbolic of what’s happening and what can happen in the industry,” said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource.
In some ways, the plant has been two decades in the making. Several executives and engineers involved in the Ivanpah project also once headed up Luz International, one of the country’s first solar companies.
USC- and UCLA-educated engineer Arnold J. Goldman founded Luz in 1984, inspired by his experience at an Israeli kibbutz, where he encountered a primitive solar technology first used in the early 1900s in Egypt.
Luz sprinkled the California desert with nine solar thermal installations that produced 90% of all solar electricity at the time, which still wasn’t enough to be practical for utilities. Luz sank into bankruptcy in 1991 as oil and gas prices dropped and a state tax credit expired.
Many of the Luz executives dispersed to other solar companies, but in 2004 Goldman reassembled the team and formed what eventually became BrightSource.
Though Brightsource has yet to generate any revenue, an array of investors including Chevron Corp., BP, Morgan Stanley and Google Inc. — and even the venture capital arm of the Russian government — have offered up more than $300 million. Some analysts believe BrightSource may be positioning itself for an initial public offering next year. The company announced this week that it would build solar power plants in the Mediterranean and in Africa.
The company’s resurrection is a “great comeback story of tenacity and persistence,” said Michael T. Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy.
But BrightSource hasn’t been free of controversy. Last year, it abandoned a solar project proposed for a nearby site after clashing with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who wanted to turn the area into a national monument.
And the original Ivanpah plan called for 4,073 acres of land producing 440 megawatts, but the company scaled it back to appease environmental concerns about maintaining the landscape.
It also agreed to spend about $44 million for environmental mitigation, including a cooling system designed to use less water than other solar plants. And instead of concrete pads that require the land to be graded and cleared, the heliostats will sit on poles that are placed into the lumpy ground.
To address worries about destroying the habitat of the desert tortoise, which is classified as a threatened species, Brightsource hired more than 50 biologists to track the animals. One juvenile tortoise has a biologist babysitter trailing it, protecting the animal from construction activity.
Critics such as Bowers contend that sprawling installations like Ivanpah contribute to harmful greenhouse gas emissions because the mirrors and equipment require heavy manufacturing and construction. And the lengthy transmission lines could be vulnerable to weather, hackers and potentially even terrorists, she said.
“There’s a lot of rooftop potential in our cities or suburbs to produce the vast majority of the solar power we need,” she said. “That they’re choosing the wilderness first is incredibly wrong.”
But that hasn’t kept the project from generating plenty of buzz — even from President Obama, who said the plant construction would create valuable local jobs.
The Ivanpah project will be able to take advantage of government incentives including a $1.37-billion federal loan guarantee. Analysts said that without the government support, the solar thermal industry might struggle against cheaper technologies such as photovoltaics.
The project is launching at a time when San Bernardino County’s construction industry has been hit hard, with its workers’ unemployment rate hovering above 20%.
Jose Duarte, 38, who had been jobless for a year, looked for months for positions at the site. This week, he started a job there driving a water truck.
“These power plants are something new and exciting,” the Murietta resident said. “But most importantly, it’s work.”