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San Bernardino Stalls Desert Solar Project

Posted by Margaret Collins In Friday, February 12 2010 under: Solar Industry News, Solar Thermal, desert, California Solar, BrightSource

Yesterday's move by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to stall BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah project is the latest episode in the drama of desert solar power development. It's a drama that stars land usage, but really it's an ensemble cast that includes corporate interests, state profits, and economic stimulus and job creation. (Not to mention the desert tortoise.)

The county's major concern right now is what seems like a NIMBY issue of land mitigation: to compensate for taking up so much public land for this project and to restore habitat, BrightSource is supposed to buy 12,000 acres of private land and hand it over to the feds. Once it's federal land, of course, the county loses tax revenues and development prospects on it. San Bernardino officials want BrightSource to be able to simply write a check to the feds for the equivalent amount--presumably so the government can go re-establish wildlife habitat elsewhere. The county is not confident that BrightSource's promise of 85 permanent jobs and $400 million projected state and local tax benefits outweigh the loss of land.

The Ivanpah project is a 400 MW Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) power plant planned for a stretch of the Mojave desert about five miles from the Nevada border. If completed as planned, the Ivanpah development would be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world and would just about double the amount of solar thermally generated electricity in the United States, according to BrightSource.

If you haven't been following the desert solar debate, check out a string of some of our posts on the topic here. I'll sum it up for you though:

  • Pros: empty land; lots of sunlight; easy installation surface; out of sight of major urban centers; a way to develop previously "useless" land
  • Cons: delicate ecosystem means endangering habitat; some people like their desert empty; water usage

Here's one thing that bugs me about the desert solar debate: as in the Las Vegas Sun article linked to above, there is a nearly total obliviousness to the hypocrisy of slinging "bad land use!" at solar in the desert. The article says the Ivanpah project is "about 5 miles south of the Primm Golf Course"--note the lack of irony? A solar power plant can't hardly take a step towards development because of concerns over land and water use when it is five miles from a golf course in the Mojave Desert. Las Vegas has been such an unmitigated man-made disaster of natural proportions that even it's own water reservoirs, long ago diverted from the Colorado River, are going dry. I suppose it's only to be expected that a new technology--and new arguable "misuse" of land--would draw flak in a way that older evils won't. Still, I would like to see this enter into the conversation more. Perhaps BrightSource could buy up the golf course and hand that back to the feds for reclamation: now that would be poetic justice.

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