MOJAVE DESERT, Calif. — The Mojave Desert, which spans an area larger than West Virginia, is becoming speckled with gigantic solar power plants that are creating hundreds of construction jobs and, when complete, will generate electricity for millions of homes.
California’s Solar Gold Rush is under way, fueled by billions of dollars of federal stimulus funding and a new state law that requires utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
While the collapse of Fremont, Calif., solar manufacturer Solyndra Inc. has dominated the news in recent weeks because it received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, several other solar companies that got loan guarantees appear to be thriving.
The project furthest along is BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which has been under construction for one year on federal land near the California-Nevada border with the help of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee.
BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, Calif., uses mirrors to concentrate the sun and turn turbines that generate electricity. When complete in 2013, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 140,000 homes.
More than 800 construction workers are on the 3,600-acre site.
Ivanpah is one of nine solar thermal power plants approved by the California Energy Commission last year. In August, the federal Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for 17 solar power plants in California’s deserts.
But critics and grass-roots organizations such as Solar Done Right fear the West’s last remaining tracts of pristine public lands are being industrialized in the name of clean energy, bringing irreparable harm to native plants and threatened species.
They want ”smart from the start” planning that allows renewable energy development in some parts of the desert while protecting the rest. They want people to know California’s deserts are as beloved to some residents as its beaches are to others.
“There’s plenty of desert out there — just put it in the right place,” said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization that opposes the proposed 4,613-acre Calico Solar Project east of Barstow, Calif., because of its effects on desert tortoises, burrowing owls and bighorn sheep.
Jim Andre, a botanist and plant ecologist at the University of California-Riverside, said native plants won’t survive under the new shade.
While land has been cleared for the construction site, BrightSource has left much of the native vegetation intact. BrightSource says the plant will displace 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over its 30-year life. Google Inc. has invested $168 million in the project; utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to purchase the electricity.
Ivanpah consists of three separate power plants, each with a 459-foot-tall “power tower” and tens of thousands of mirror-like “heliostats” — 173,500 in all.