The Obama administration has given initial approval for $1.4 billion in federal loan guarantees to help build the world’s largest solar power complex in California’s Mojave desert. Brightsource Energy’s Ivanpah solar complex would consist of three phases (Ivanpah 1, 2 and 3), totaling nearly 400 megawatts of concentrated solar power. Obama’s decision to guarantee the loans to build the complex are vital to financing, although the project must still overcome environmental and regulatory hurdles before being built.
The $1.4-billion guarantee is the largest that the Department of Energy has ever offered for solar power. It represents an effort by the US government to ensure American leadership in renewable energy. As Energy Secretary Steven Chu put it, “We’re not going to sit on the sidelines while other countries capture the jobs of the future.” Brightsource Energy estimates that the Ivanpah project, which will cover up to five square miles of desert land, would create about 1,000 temporary construction jobs and 86 permanent jobs in operation and maintenance.
If built to its originally planned capacity, the complex would create enough solar energy to power 140,000 homes. But that is a big IF, as environmental controversy continues to inhibit progress. Despite the loan guarantees, Brightsource Energy must still meet financial requirements and get past state and federal permitting processes (the complex is to be built on publicly owned land).
Environmental groups have been stalling such projects due to concerns over the fate of the notoriously sensitive desert tortoise, an endangered species that would undoubtedly be affected by the destruction of more than 3,000 acres of its habitat. Brightsource recently offered to scale down the complex to leave some vital lands for the tortoise to thrive, but, according to USA Today, groups like the Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife still feel that the entire project should be moved elsewhere.
The issue of renewable energy projects versus wildlife habitat has become the most volatile industry within the solar industry. The Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (which administers leases on public lands) are working to designate solar energy zones where power plants and permitting could be fast-tracked, but progress remains slow. The Obama administration’s backing of loans for Ivanpah is also a show of support for this and other desert solar projects, but will it make a difference? Brightsource Energy, itself based in California, has at least shown a willingness to compromise, which may give it that extra edge in getting regulatory permission and some wiggle room from environmentalists.
I suppose time will tell. If nothing else, Brightsource should have a much easier time getting financing for Ivanpah — a sizable $1.4 billion hurdle — which is certainly a plus. But it doesn’t compare to the $8.3 billion in loan guarantees Obama recently offered to help finance two new nuclear power reactors in Georgia.
Via USA Today