Haubenstock says the company is counting on the $60 billion embedded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help the industry along. It has raised $160 million in investments from Google, Chevron, Morgan Stanley and British Petroleum, and has secured two contracts, one to provide 900 megawatts of solar-generated power to Pacific Gas and Electric, and another for 1,300 megawatts with Southern California Edison.
Yet even with the investments and contracts, it makes little financial sense for BrightSource CEO John Woolard to negotiate for land with a variety of private landowners -- who, in the current market, can get as much as $10,000 an acre -- when the company can access public land through federal leases or a land-exchange program at around $700 per acre. "Private landowners can hold land hostage," says Haubenstock.
Then again, private landowners can also streamline energy development when it suits them, and might offer a simpler solution. The Desert Protective Council's Larry Hogue, who tracks the renewable energy land rush on his Desert Blog, cites a concentrating solar thermal plant to be constructed by Spain's Abengoa Solar for Arizona Public Service as an early example of responsible land management. The project still faces many hurdles, including financing, but a lengthy review complicated by squabbling environmentalists is not among them. The project will occupy three square miles of privately owned land on a former alfalfa field in Gila Bend, Ariz., 70 miles from Phoenix.
"The solar plant will use less water than the alfalfa did," Hogue says. "We have to support that."
This is the real discussion, Hogue argues, that is missing from the enviro-on-enviro media narrative. It's not that some environmentalists are opposed to renewable energy. It's that states, the federal government, solar developers and utilities have not taken the time to arrive at a thoughtful land-use policy that would move solar projects forward.
"We are not opposed to renewable energy," says The Wildlands Conservancy's David Myers. "But if you read the New York Times, you might think that we are. All our preserves run on wind and solar." What Myers does oppose is giving over the land his organization donated for conservation to any kind of private development, whether tract housing, solar plants or wind farms. "If Ken Salazar does not stop this, then the Obama administration is breaking a 100-year tradition of conservation that extends back through three generations," he says.
Myers claims that BrightSource uses "absolutely no discretion in placing its projects. But I would personally go out and find BrightSource the right places to put their solar energy farms. We're great at finding land. We have hundreds of thousands of acres in California along grid interties that are fallowed farmlands we would welcome them to use. There is degraded land throughout the Mojave, lands that the whole environmental community will support."
Myers predicts that even if all state and federal agencies sign off on Ivanpah, BrightSource will end up stuck in court with Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club for years over exactly how much land should compensate for the desert tortoise habitat lost to its solar plant. On the other hand, if the company had gone about the process more reasonably from the get-go, "all of these projects could have been fast-tracked."
There's a way of looking at the Ivanpah site, passing by it on the I-15 freeway, that makes it seem like a fine place to put a concentrating solar plant. In fact, in the shadow of Primm, Nev., an unmitigated monstrosity of casinos, fast-food chains and amusement park rides, a few thousand acres of mirrors might actually look like a work of art.
But there's another approach to Ivanpah, literally and figuratively. You can start driving there from the Marine base at Twentynine Palms, and thread your way up through the Mojave National Preserve. You can rumble along busted-up tarmac roads past the original Roy's Motel along old Route 66 and the eerie black protuberance of the Amboy Crater, and pass through the Joshua tree forest at Cima, as dense as any stand of coastal redwoods. When you come at it this way, the Ivanpah Valley belongs to a continuum of open space extending west across the rugged Clark Mountains. It's a swath of land stuck between segments of the Mojave Preserve that remains unexploited simply because no one has gotten around to exploiting it.