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
  • WATERSHED PROGRAMS COORDINATOR
    Are you looking for a positive and success oriented work environment, the opportunity to join a (small but) dynamic group of people supporting watershed activities...
  • BACKCOUNTRY FILM FESTIVAL MANAGER
    Boise-based Winter Wildlands Alliance is looking for an experienced and highly motivated individual to organize our annual Backcountry Film Festival and Tour and coordinate additional...
  • LAND CONSERVATION MANAGER
    SUMMARY Leads, administers and manages the land conservation, conservation easement stewardship, and property management activities of the City of Fort Collins Natural Areas Department within...
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM ATTORNEY, NEVADA
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is seeking a Staff Attorney who is passionate about Western communities and the protection of the natural environment to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes River Conservancy in Bend, Oregon
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.