But Brightsource’s loan guarantee comes with conditions. The company still has to get the final approval of local, state, and federal regulatory agencies. It hoped to start construction a year ago, but the approval process has taken longer than expected. The company is working with Southern California Edison to upgrade transmission lines for the project. And it’s working through environmental issues, moving parts of the power plant and decreasing its size to preserve rare plant and animal species.
The main problem is that companies lack experience in choosing appropriate designs and locations for solar thermal plants. In one misstep, many companies selected technology that requires large amounts of water–something that’s very difficult to get approved for the desert locations where these plants need to be. Brightsource chose a more expensive technology that consumes relatively little water, and Ricker thinks this has helped its application.
There were some other bad decisions about where to locate new power plants. “After the 2005 energy policy act, there was a rush to develop on public lands in the desert,” says Laurel Williams, a deputy conservation director of the California Wilderness Coalition, based in Oakland, CA. “For a lot of projects that were proposed, people just looked at a map and circled the land, without consultation.”
Several of the sites chosen were on public land that had originally been donated to the government for the purposes of conservation. In December 2009, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) submitted a bill to Congress that would officially set these areas aside as part of a national parks, prohibiting their use for new solar projects. The bill has led to the cancellation of 11 proposed projects, including one from Brightsource. The Ivanpah project is outside the areas that would be protected.
Regulations make site selection more difficult, but there should still be plenty of land for California to meet its renewable energy targets, Williams says, even if all that renewable energy were to come from solar thermal projects. To meet that goal would require between 60,000 and 128,000 acres of land, but there are over 25 million acres in the Southern California deserts, much of which has already been used for other purposes, eliminating environmental concerns. Efforts are underway by the U.S. Department of the Interior to set aside 350,000 acres of previously disturbed land near existing transmission lines specifically for renewable projects. Solar plants that were canceled because of the proposed Feinstein bill would have first dibs on this land, Williams says.
If the solar thermal industry is to take off, however, one basic change needs to be made to existing law, according to Ricker. Currently, to qualify for the grant in the stimulus package, construction on a power plant needs to start by the end of this year. At the current rate, the Ivanpah project could be the only one to start by then. Ricker says the deadline should be extended a few years to give other proposed projects a chance.