A Solar Plant a Tortoise Could Love

 

On the Web site of GreenBiz.com, Mark Gunther describes Bill Gross as "a serial entrepreneur" and "one of the most interesting business people I've known." Gross is the guy who gave Google its paid-search idea. He likes robots. He has Google's money invested in his electric car project (only fair, right?). He also may be the guy to best solve the land wars that continue between desert conservationists and national environmental organizations over large-scale concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) in the desert.

Last week, Gross and the solar-power company he founded, eSolar, held a grand opening for a 5-megawatt plant called the Sierra SunTower near the California desert city of Lancaster, 70 miles from Los Angeles. It's the first of many such plants:  eSolar has contracts with Southern California Edison and NRG for hundreds of megawatts in CSP. What Gunther doesn't mention is that Gross is committed to doing it all in relatively small parcels on private, already disturbed land.

Here's what he told BNET.com's Chris Morrison last spring:

Of the $130 million we raised, we spent $30 million on land. We went and bought, specifically, previously disturbed farmland near transmission. So we don’t have to worry about wildlife migration patterns. We bought private land, so we don’t need special permission. Our 46 megawatt plant takes up  a quarter square mile, much smaller than other power tower plants. And one other benefit of going smaller is that the towers are smaller; that’s important for neighbors. If you’re above 180 feet, the FAA comes into play and neighbors may complain. We stayed lower than 180, around the height transmission towers are anyway. So we can locate much closer to the city.

I wanted to include eSolar in the story I wrote about distributed energy resources, but their public-relations person argued that the plants didn't really qualify as distributed generation. That's probably right -- 46 megawatts is a little on the high side for DG. But the same principles apply. CSP uses mirrors to focus the sun's energy on a liquid, which turns to steam and spins a turbine to produce electricity just like a coal plant does. It's cheaper than the photovoltaics we put on our roofs, which turn sunlight into electrons. But a 400-megawatt plant, like the ones BrightSource want to build in the Mojave Desert, will require clearing six-square miles of land -- much of it undisturbed public land conservationists have struggled to protect. Building it small, the way eSolar does, allows for building it close to the places it will power. And it allows eSolar to dodge a lot of trouble.

There are conservationists who will object to eSolar's plans as well, just as there are people who will continue to defend large-scale solar on public land. Both sides have their increasingly well-argued cases. But it's worthwhile to watch Gross plow ahead on his middle-ground solution while the other sides duke it out.

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIV
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Central Oregon LandWatch is seeking an Executive Director to advance our mission and oversee the development of the organization. Job Description: The Executive Director oversees...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • SAN JUAN BASIN ENERGY CAMPAIGN ORGANIZER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is seeking a full-time San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer located in Farmington, New Mexico. The San Juan Energy Campaign Organizer focuses...
  • WILDLIFE PROGRAM MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance (SJCA) is looking for a passionate, experienced, and motivated Wildlife Program Manager to lead campaigns to protect and enhance wildlife and...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes."- Billings Gazette Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, &...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER AND MEMBERSHIP COORDINATOR
    Western Colorado Alliance is hiring for 4 positions, 2 Full Time Community Organizers, 1 Part Time Community Organizer and a Part Time Membership Coordinator. For...
  • BUSINESS OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    Thorne Nature Experience is looking for a Business Operations Director who will work in partnership with the Executive Director and Thorne's Directors and Managers to...