Green energy superstar this week when a California state regulator recommended approval of its 392-megawatt Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert.
The California Energy Commission will now hold a 30-day public comment period before voting on the final decision. Another regulatory approval, this one from the federal Bureau of Land Management, should come down in short order. The company plans to begin construction on the complex by fall.
G.E.R. spoke to BrightSource Chief Executive Officer John Woolard earlier this summer about the regulatory challenges of the project. �I can�t say we were never frustrated,� he said. A bit of an understatement perhaps.
BrightSource has faced opposition to the Ivanpah project on a number of fronts, most notably because the initial 6-square-mile project footprint was in the habitat of the threatened desert tortoise. The Sierra Club wanted them to relocate the project entirely, which would have threatened the $1.37 billion loan guarantee the Energy Department has awarded for the project.
BrightSource technology uses thousands of mirrors to reflect sunlight onto a boiler on top of a 459-foot metal tower. The steam generated as the liquid is boiled is piped to a turbine and generates electricity. Ivanpah should power about 140,000 homes and the energy has already been sold to Pacific Gas & Electric and Sourthern California Edison.
Woolard said he there is always opposition to the first of anything (for a rough analogy, see Cape Wind�s attempts to build an offshore wind farm in Nantucket).
�Everybody in our company has built power plants and assets before and understands what it takes,� he told G.E.R. in an interview at the Renewable Energy Finance Forum in New York on June 29.
Not that the regulatory hurdles have prevented BrightSource from raising heaps of cash. In May, a Series D financing secured $150 million to build 14 new solar plants from the California State Teachers Retirement System and Alstom, among others.
He added that the intensive review process made the project that much better.
In February, BrightSource revised the project to reduce the project footprint by 12 percent � which reduced the megawattage from 440 to 392 � and minimize its impact on rare flora and fauna, including the desert tortoise.
The solar will also cool the project with air, instead of water, saving considerable amounts of water.
Woolard said most environmental groups understand the threat of climate change and are simply advocating for thoughtful planning. But, he added that �the biggest threat to any biodiversity is not acting thoughtfully.�
Woolard noted that there were 74,000 permits issued for oil and gas projects on federal lands in the past 15 years, while there have been zero for solar projects.
�We�ve got a major problem to solve,� Woolard said. �We�ve got to build 50 gigawatts a year of carbon-free power. That�s a lot of power to build and we�re failing miserably at doing it.�