Right now, however, Ivanpah matters more than all those projects, because it's the first large-scale solar plant on public land to move into the concurrent permitting process with the BLM and the California Energy Commission in 16 years. It is, says G. Sid Silliman, the president of the Sierra Club's Mojave-adjacent San Gorgonio Chapter, "the model for all future projects. We want to make sure it gets done right." If the BLM isn't sure about the questions, many national environmental organizations are pounding on the door with questions of their own.
For instance, what does it mean to describe land as "disturbed"? The federal government has long granted grazing rights to the Ivanpah parcel, but that didn't prevent it from becoming a de facto refuge for the threatened desert tortoise, 30 of which were found during project surveys. Each of those tortoises will need to be relocated before the project advances, a process that will likely result in some of them dying. Consequently, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association and several other groups consider the land high-value habitat, and have asked the state Energy Commission to require that BrightSource compensate for it by purchasing five times as much similar land for conservation. But no environmental organization with a significant number of members east of the Mississippi River opposes Ivanpah altogether.
Silliman chooses his words meticulously: "It does seem to be true that the people who settled on the Ivanpah site perhaps didn't look at it as fully as they should have," he says. He has recommended that BrightSource consider moving the project to private land, to a site near the California-Nevada border in Daggett, Calif. But even if it stays in the Ivanpah Valley, Silliman says, "the project would contribute to renewable energy standards in the state. And that's important to us."
The Sierra Club's fence-sitting rankles Harvey, who cannot see in it any kind of strategy, only a bald capitulation by "envirocrats" to energy companies. He has many allies. In early April, as spring wildflowers delivered on their annual promise to the desert tortoise -- the reptiles could be spotted prowling the land with bunches of yellow and orange flowers in their jaws -- Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham of the group Basin and Range Watch went out to Ivanpah to document the bloom. They posted Emmerich's images on a Web site, and sent them to Carl Zichella.
Zichella declined to comment for this article, deferring to Silliman to explain the club's nuanced position. But in a widely circulated response to Emmerich and Cunningham's photos, he made an attempt to put the Sierra Club's position in the larger context of global environmental catastrophe. "Friends," he wrote. "Beautiful photos; thanks for sending them. A quick Q: with scientists saying a one-degree increase in temperature could lead to a 20 percent decline in species in the desert southwest, how many springs like this year's do you think the desert has left?"
The Sierra Club has nothing against Germany, Zichella went on to say; in fact, the club supported state and federal legislation for feed-in tariff (California Assemblymember Jared Huffman authored one; U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., wrote another). It's just that rooftop solar can't happen fast enough, or solve the problem alone. Without large-scale solar, "we will never do what needs to be done to save the places we have fought for and love."
Harvey says he understands the threat of climate change perfectly well. "This is simple," he says. "I'm trying to save intact desert ecosystems. Carl Zichella is not."
It's not hard to understand why the Ivanpah Valley is a solar engineer's dream. A southeast-facing alluvial plain at the base of the Clark Mountains, it gets 300 full days of sun every year, shining through clear dry air at an elevation of 3,000 feet. A 115-kilovolt transmission line cuts across the site, which means BrightSource could avoid the controversy of plowing under more habitat to build new transmission. If you want to build a solar electric plant on the least amount of land for the least amount of money and generate the most energy per square inch, this is the place to do it.
Such location-related cost and efficiency issues could decide whether industrial-scale solar thermal gets off the ground in the U.S., or meets the same fate it did in decades past. Back in the 1980s, Arnold Goldman, who founded BrightSource as Luz International, oversaw the construction of nine plants in the Mojave, totaling 354 megawatts. But he and other solar developers abandoned their plans when energy prices dropped and federal tax breaks expired; since then, the company has built only a few small plants, including a 1.5 megawatt demonstration facility in Israel's Negev Desert.
The faltering economy could again stall large-scale solar projects. "It's hard for renewables to compete with conventional energy," says Arthur Haubenstock, BrightSource's director of regulatory affairs –– especially if you're "trying to do it in the most ecological and environmental way possible." Following the BLM's recommendation for desert solar plants, the three Ivanpah generators will use air instead of water to condense used steam and return water to the boiler. The process, called "dry-cooling," costs more and reduces efficiency, but also cuts water use by 90 percent -- a necessity in a land of little rain and already overdrawn aquifers.