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Massive Solar Plant A Stepping Stone For Future Projects

The Ivanpah solar project in California's Mojave Desert will be the largest solar power plant of its kind in the world.
Josh Cassidy
The Ivanpah solar project in California's Mojave Desert will be the largest solar power plant of its kind in the world.

The largest solar power plant of its kind is about to turn on in California's Mojave Desert.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System will power about 140,000 homes and will be a boon to the state's renewable energy goals, but it was no slam dunk. Now, California is trying to bring conservationists and energy companies together to create a smoother path for future projects.

To get the best view of the Ivanpah solar project, you have to go up to the top of a 400-foot concrete tower. Below, close to 200,000 mirrors shimmer across a dry, dusty valley.

"It's very exciting," says Dave Beaudoin, the construction manager for the $2 billion project located about an hour southwest of Las Vegas. Each mirror is about the size of a garage door, and it's mounted on a pole so it can be pointed at the tower.

"We can keep the sun's energy — the rays of the sun — targeted back to the solar tower," Beaudoin says.

All of those mirrors generate about a thousand degrees of heat. It isn't the solar technology most of us think of: dark panels on rooftops. These mirrors heat a giant boiler on top of the tower, where water turns into steam. Beaudoin says that steam powers a turbine that generates electricity.

"This is definitely cutting-edge. It's nothing I've ever done before," he says.

It's been a bumpy road, however, and it took years to get permits from almost a dozen state, federal and local agencies. The project became political fodder after getting a federal loan guarantee, like the bankrupt solar company Solyndra.

And then there's the desert tortoise.

In all, developers found nearly 200 tortoises onsite, many more than expected. Finding and relocating them has cost around $55,000 per tortoise. Critics like Ileene Anderson have watched closely.

"I'm not a big fan of the super large projects," Anderson says.

Anderson is with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the groups concerned about the loss of desert habitat. She says after California set a goal of getting a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, there was a rush to build big solar farms in the desert.

"Many of the projects, when they were first proposed and we would see the application, see where the map was, it was like: 'Oh no, this is going to be a nightmare project,'" she says.

But other environmental groups saw one reason to support big solar.

"If you care about desert tortoises, you better care about climate change," says Carl Zichella with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Without some large-scale renewable energy projects, we do not hit our climate goals. We do not replace fossil fuels with clean energy in this country."

These differing views created an uncomfortable "green vs. green" debate, Zichella says. "I think it has been tough. It's been personally painful. We are very good at stopping things, [and] we aren't very good at building things," he says.

In the end, environmental groups negotiated with the Ivanpah project and others one by one to set aside nature preserves in the desert. Learning from this, the state is trying to head off future conflicts with a new plan. The idea is to divvy up the desert into renewable energy zones and zones that are off-limits.

Karen Douglas of the California Energy Commission says it's unusual to see all sides working together.

"There is never any perfect consensus," Douglas says. "But we've got an opportunity with this partnership to put in place what we really think of as the 'greenprint' that will help us conserve our desert resources."

Douglas says other western states like Arizona and Nevada are taking on similar efforts. The Ivanpah solar project will come fully online by the end of the year.

Copyright 2021 KQED. To see more, visit KQED.

Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.