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Big Solar: It's Green vs. Green

No form of energy production comes without controversy, including solar, despite it being renewable. In advance of the world's largest solar thermal plant opening in Calif's Mojave Desert, KQED's Lauren Sommer shows both sides of the green debate.
July 17, 2013, 8am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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The threatened desert tortoise, protected under the Endangered Species Act, risked turning the 392-megawatt, Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which had obtained a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee, into the next Solyndra, the infamous manufacturer of solar photo-voltaic (PV) panels that defaulted in Sept. 2011 on what has been dubbed, "Obama administration's $528-million bad bet". A lawsuit and description of solar thermal (not to be confused with PV) plants was posted here in 2011. See the diagram distinguishing solar thermal from photovoltaic energy production.

The $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee that BrightSource, the Oakland-based manufacturer, had received required that a timeline be met. Upon finding five times the number of these threatened herbivores within the project's 3,500 acres, construction was shut down and another biological survey needed to be completed.

While the desert tortoise was the main concern for the Center for Biological Diversity, which maintains that these large solar plants are best sited on "previously disturbed lands where there’s very few conflicts because the landscape has already been impacted”, climate change was the preeminent issue for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“If you care about desert tortoises, you better care about climate change,” said Carl Zichella of 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. It just does not happen.”

Zichella was referring to California's Renewable Portfolio Standard that requires the state to meet the goal of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Fortunately, a compromise was reached with BrightSource to create nature preserves in the desert, on top of creating a desert tortoise nursery. In addition, California developed the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan that designates "zones suitable for renewable energy development and conservation areas that are off-limits".

In addition to Ivanpah, which is now owned by NRG Energy, Google, and BrightSource Energy, "six other major solar projects are expected to open in California over the next year", helping the state meet its renewal energy target for electricity generation.

Meanwhile, a far more sinister threat to the Mojave lies just over the California border in Nevada, and there is no apparent upside as is the case with renewable energy. 

A 5-minute audio tape is above the text and can be downloaded.

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Published on Friday, July 12, 2013 in KQED Science
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