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Cart reports: "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. 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."

BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Valley solar power plant at dawn. (photo: Mark Boster/LAT)
BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Valley solar power plant at dawn. (photo: Mark Boster/LAT)

Sacrificing the Desert to Save the Earth

By Julie Cart, Los Angeles Times

06 February 12


Environmentalists are torn over the high cost of breaking reliance on fossil fuels. Public comment has been sought, but insiders are calling the shots.

onstruction 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-sized assembly buildings, looming berms of sand and a chain mail of fencing that will enclose more than 3,500 acres of public land. 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 that some experts say could kill up to a third of them.

PHOTOS: Solar power compromise

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

GRAPHIC: Large-scale 'solar farm' technology

"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 underway 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 over the last decade - 21 million acres, more than the area of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties put together.

Even 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 well beyond a human life span, 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.

Urgency in the Desert

Desert landscapes present an implacable face, changing at an undetectable pace. Any living thing must adapt and make peace with the relentless sun.

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 bustling 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 as much as 50% 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, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger freed large solar plants from property tax 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, funded by a ratepayer surcharge.

The funding 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 Inc., which received $1.6 billion in federally guaranteed loans in addition to hundreds of millions in private capital derived from such disparate sources as NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc., investment bank Morgan Stanley and CalSTRS, the state's teachers' retirement fund.

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

But other companies - often no more than a website and a phone number - obtained solar permits from the federal Bureau of Land Management with no apparent intention other than to sell their place in line. Some gobbled up permits, sat on the land and never turned a spade of soil.

Federal and state officials have used job creation to partly justify their subsidy of private 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."

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 complete their work.

"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."

Jeffrey Lovich studies desert tortoises for the U.S. Geological Survey. In preparing a recent paper, he and a colleague scoured published research analyzing impacts from large solar farms on wildlife. They found one paper. Essentially, Lovich said, no one knows what will happen to wildlife in the Mojave.

"This is an experiment on a grand scale," Lovich said. "Science is racing to catch up."

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. National environmental groups joined BrightSource and other solar companies in a letter sent Dec. 14 to the White House, asking the president to continue a federal renewable-energy subsidy.

The national office of the Sierra Club has had to quash local chapters' opposition to some solar projects, sending out a 42-page directive making it clear that the club's national policy goals superseded the objections of a local group. Animosity bubbled over after a local Southern California chapter was told to refrain from opposing solar projects.

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 in an interview. The goal, he added, has been to make sure the projects are "the least environmentally intrusive."

In the case of the Ivanpah project, for example, environmental groups were able to convince BrightSource to reduce the project's overall footprint and preserve a sensitive area near the foothills of the Clark Mountains.

"We didn't make them perfect," Wald, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said of the solar projects. "We didn't eliminate their environmental impact because you can't eliminate the environmental impact. But we made them better."

Opposition instead has come from the federal government.

The National Park Service has voiced the strongest complaints about the scale and siting of solar projects. California's desert parks - Joshua Tree, Death Valley and the Mojave National Preserve - have the most acreage affected by the development.

The Department of Defense also has raised questions. The Pentagon has the China Lake weapons testing facility, Ft. Irwin, Edwards Air Force Base, Twentynine Palms Marine base and the Chocolate Mountain Naval Aerial Gunnery Range.

The military, whose pilots often trace the contours of the desert floor from 200 feet, is concerned about maneuvering around 460-foot solar towers. The Marines have asked the companies for more information about the glare produced by a vast carpet of solar reflectors.

The Federal Aviation Administration has voiced concerns about the heat plume rising from the Ivanpah towers and about the installation's possible radar interference.

Schramm, who retired last December as superintendent at Mojave National Preserve, found himself at odds with the Interior Department, his own parent agency, in defending the 900 species of plants and 300-plus species of animals in the preserve, especially the desert tortoise.

"For the life of the projects, that habitat is lost to the desert tortoise. It's 'Pack your bags, you're leaving,'" he said. "So while you are trying to recover the species, you take away the habitat?"

Schramm sees the vast desert, with a tenuous constituency that cares about it, as a pawn in a high-stakes financial gambit played out by multinational companies.

"Some of these projects are going to fail," he said. "These are big businesses chasing federal dollars - they don't care if they fail. They got what they want."

Should that happen, he said, the species that rely on the arid and austere Mojave will be out of luck.

"If these companies pull out and attempt to restore the land - if they can - it will take a long time," he said. "It will be 100 years. It might be 200 years. That's how long it would take to restore the desert." your social media marketing partner


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+5 # edwin_ 2012-02-06 17:14
It seems to me that it is worth the risk to sacrifice this small percentage of land and the small percentage of relocated animals for the possibility of energy independance
+2 # infohiway 2012-02-07 08:40
It won't EVER pay for itself.
+16 # ER444 2012-02-07 15:00
What I don't understand is why we haven't gotten the real message. This project is a form of centralized energy production even if it is on a small scale. The answer to the problem is to decentralize energy production as much as possible. Every house should have solar collectors for heating water and making electricity.. a small wind mill. Where possible geo-thermal in your own garden. This combined with more efficient methods of using energy, ie. insulation, more efficient architecture. The most important step of all is to reduce our consumption. Towns like Las Vegas and their obscene sucking up of elecricity for their "night life" and misuse of water for fountains and golf courses in the desert need to relegated to the past. Giving away tax payer dollars to subsidize mamouth energy parks in the sensitive desert ecosystem is certainly not the answer AND as long as the tax codes encourage this misbehaviour we will never make real progress.
+4 # rosaleee 2012-02-08 00:23
That was my reaction exactly. Instead we should have every home and every building taking at least 25% of its energy from its own solar panels. No land-grabbing footprint greater than the existing footprint.

I spent part of my childhood in the Mojave desert. It is already well on its way to ruin from being a "bedroom community" for LA -- something unimaginable in the 1950s when I lived there.
+3 # Cactusman 2012-02-10 16:53
This is bingo correct. FIRST we ought to conserve, and SECOND we ought to be using already disturbed and degraded lands for solar development, rather than using wild and intact desert.

We need to decentralize and democratize our power production, so that we each are mini-producers and have a direct connection to the energy we use so that we steward it better. Only after that is done, should we make mega-scale centralized projects on virgin lands.

Great Basin Watch and Solar Done Right are two organizations that promulgate these more sensible pathways of renewable energy development.
+10 # Rick Levy 2012-02-06 19:39
Maybe in time technology will reduce the size of these mirrors and increase their efficiency such that land on which they're constructed won't have to be devastated.
+27 # Activista 2012-02-06 20:44
I am an engineer and whole project smells like a disaster.
More heat to the atmosphere - less soil, less vegetation.
Desert is quite complex organism but ignorants will sacrifice it for federal $$ and could make some people employ in the short time.
How much energy is used in one day of war?
"The department is a prime consumer, .. accounting for 80 percent of the U.S. government’s energy consumption, amounting to 330,000 barrels of oil and 3.8 billion kilowatts of electricity per day for more than 500 major military installations."
+10 # pbbrodie 2012-02-07 08:06
Excellent points all.
This doesn't even appear to be the best use of solar energy, converting it into a mechanical process heating water to drive conventional turbines seems like total non-sense to me, when there are so many ways to convert solar energy directly into electricity, like solar cells.
Also, and I think you were making this point, they could have saved this much energy and much more by eliminating waste, like eliminating all of the energy used to run just a couple of military bases.
I am absolutely stunned that the environmental groups listed went along with this. It sets a terrible precedent.
+2 # Activista 2012-02-07 14:05
$45 billion in federal tax credits for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar power project ...
enough to power roughly 140,000 homes during peak hours -
Looks like $300,000 / house - how much solar panels it is per house?
+1 # Darooha 2012-02-08 10:52
You're not reading carefully. The $45B is for the entire federal program. This one project will cost $2B.
+10 # brianf 2012-02-07 00:27
It might take 100 or 200 years to restore the desert, but it will take 100,000 years to bring atmospheric CO2 levels back to normal. And deserts will be expanding in many places with global warming. The entire Great Plains area could turn back into a desert. We need to put these things into perspective.

On the other hand, we should do as little harm as possible to all life while fighting global warming. We need to save all the biodiversity we can, to balance all the coming extinctions.

We are faced with very difficult and complex problems. The more discussion and research, the better. But we can't wait to act, we can't keep arguing and delaying, or we will risk losing most of the life that now exists on earth. The problem of global warming and climate change is far more serious and urgent than most environmentalis ts (or engineers or politicians) realize.
+5 # Valleyboy 2012-02-07 06:09
While there a lot more damage here than I, as an environmentalis t, would hope, it's nothing compared to oil & gas exploration. I mean, look at the tar sands for christs sake!

I'm not a big reader of the LA Times, which must be why I can't remember them doing a detailed, heartfelt analysis of the environments destroyed by exploiting oil, gas or coal...
+2 # infohiway 2012-02-07 06:36
It looks like everybody has a snout in the trough - in a totally unnecessary albino elephant reminiscent of shopping malls for jack-rabbits.
-1 # pres 2012-02-07 06:47
I'll bet many of the desert critters will migrate to the shade offered by the reflectors. More than likely they will have a problem with too many critters compared to unchanged desert area. Perhaps then some environmentalis ts will complain that it makes an unnatural oasis that's more preferable for the critters to live around. It seems even nature cannot satisfy some of those folks.
+7 # kyzipster 2012-02-07 07:02
The article mentions global warming but it should also mention other environmental costs of continuing to use coal, natural gas and nuclear. Mountaintop removal, fracking and the disposal of nuclear waste along with the risks of nuclear power. The benefits to the environment seem to far outweigh the costs.
+11 # sandyclaws 2012-02-07 07:18
I have lived in the desert. I remember when they were trying to close a road that went through the Sahuaro National Monument because they, (park people) said that vehicles were killing the cactus. Well... the truth of the matter is that the desert had to be bladed back every year because if thay didn't , it would take back the road!

It is not like they are paving over the desert. These mirrors will be reflecting at a target. Reflecting heat during this climate change, by the way, is a good thing (That is why it is said that you should paint your roof white.) The mirrors will block the sun (shade) the ground under them probably causing a plant growth explosion. The tortoises, coyotes, lizards, etc will probably welcome the shade. Rain will run off them and fall in front of them also causing increased growth.

Listen people, you are talking as if there is a choice! First of all we have run out of cheap oil and the next step is shortages. Oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear are all finite and expensive in dollars and damage to the enviroment that supports OUR life. The only saviour we will be able to count on is renewable energy. And, yes it won't replace the energy we are using now. Tough luck, get over it and onto the conservation bandwagon. We will never be able to live the way we do now ever again...thank God!
Maybe without all this energy we won't be able to have wars!
+7 # Reyn 2012-02-07 10:01
Reality people, reality.

I love the environment, my partner and I do everything we can - recycle, use the new LED lighting, LED monitors, energy star everything, and we are a single car household -- all to help benefit the world we live in.

BUT, we are humans. Even setting aside global warming (which believe me I do not normally do) the reality is that when (not if, when) oil declines (it is at or near peak now), if there are not solid, ready alternatives in place - many, many humans will die. By the estimates of some of my colleagues, about 4 to 5 billion over 20 years.

We have built this tower of people and our lives on nearly limitless energy. Only so much can be done with conservation. We NEED renewables, in large quantities, now.

As a human, who loves other humans (the prime motive of all species right, survival???) I can tell you, short of destroying our home world, I support any and all projects that reach toward that goal. EVEN if they are cost-inefficien t, EVEN if someone makes profit or feeds off the public trough (including that part of the pt that we help fund as tax payers).



+6 # ABen 2012-02-07 10:10
This seems a mildly biased article. While not focused construction of any type comes without some environmental impact to a fragile desert environment, solar collecting towers are among the least intrusive and invasive. Spain has several generating plants of this type that are quite successful and have very little long-term impact on the environment. The desert bio-system will take its biggest impact during the construction phase. It appears the developers of this project have focused much of their planning on limiting this impact as much as possible. As noted by other posters, the desert flora and fauna will adapt to new conditions, particularly if those conditions don't involve polluting air or ground water.
+1 # Activista 2012-02-07 13:43
It seems that most profitable constructions of lately are the ones supported by Federal Dollars - and taxpayers.
Especially in the election year.
There is no systemic approach - short term profit and management by politicians.
I am paying $7 per gallon of water to support $133 million sewage pipeline to support more house constructions to get larger tax base (more property taxes) to protect river.
Most obvious solution was NOT to pave everything around the river to let gravel and soil filter the runoff. But than buddies of the City Council would not get paving contract and $profit.
What about to not allow dense condominiums above the river - etc. All is just for the money - and short term.
+1 # Darooha 2012-02-08 09:17
There's something wrong with this article.

This project is 5 square miles. (1 sq mile = 640 acres) Do we see articles every time some factory, mall, highway, strip mine, or any other human footprint comes in and modifies the "natural" environment for some human activity? No we don't. We only see these kinds of articles when the development is for a "green" project. 100 miles of freeway destroys more area than this plant. The article is a complete red herring.

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