MOJAVE DESERT, Calif. — At first glance, the vast Mojave Desert seems barren: mile after mile of dust, sand and scrubby creosote bushes under a blistering sun. But the huge desert, which spans an area larger than West Virginia, is becoming speckled with gigantic solar power plants that are creating hundreds of construction jobs and, when complete, will generate electricity for millions of homes.
California's solar gold rush is under way, fueled by billions of dollars of federal stimulus funding and a new state law that requires utilities to buy a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. While the collapse of Fremont, Calif., solar manufacturer Solyndra Inc. has dominated the news in recent weeks because it received a $535 million loan guarantee from the Department of Energy, several other solar companies that got loan guarantees appear to be thriving.
The project furthest along is BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which has been under construction for a year on federal land near the California-Nevada border with the help of a $1.6 billion loan guarantee. BrightSource, which is based in Oakland, uses mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays and turn turbines that generate electricity. When complete in 2013, Ivanpah will be the largest solar thermal power plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 140,000 homes.
Currently, more than 800 construction workers are on the 3,600-acre site. The steel shell of a massive tower is rising from the dust near a parking lot filled with cars, trucks and construction vehicles. Most of the workers arrive before dawn to beat the searing late-afternoon heat, and engineering managers pore over plans in air-conditioned trailers.
Ivanpah is one of nine solar thermal power plants approved by the California Energy Commission last year. And scores of other solar projects are in the pipeline. In August, the federal Bureau of Land Management was processing applications for 17 solar power plants in California's deserts.
Critics and grass-roots organizations such as Solar Done Right fear that the West's last remaining tracts of pristine public land are being industrialized by "Big Solar" in the name of clean energy, bringing irreparable harm to native plants and threatened species. They want "smart from the start" planning that allows renewable energy development in some parts of the desert while protecting the rest as conservation land.
"There's plenty of desert out there — just put it in the right place," said Jim Lyons, senior director for renewable energy at Defenders of Wildlife, a national organization that opposes the proposed 4,613-acre Calico Solar Project east of Barstow, Calif., because of its effects on desert tortoises, burrowing owls and bighorn sheep.
The Ivanpah facility embodies many of the hopes and fears for power plants in the desert. It will generate 370 megawatts of electricity, which BrightSource says will displace 13.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the plant's 30-year life. Google Inc. has invested $168 million in the project, while utilities PG&E and Southern California Edison have signed long-term contracts to purchase the electricity.
Unlike rooftop solar panels, which directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal plants concentrate the sun's rays with mirrors or lenses to boil water to create steam; the steam then turns turbines that generate electricity. Ivanpah consists of three separate power plants, each with a 459-foot-tall "power tower" and tens of thousands of mirror-like "heliostats" — 173,500 in all. While land has been cleared for the construction site, BrightSource has tried to leave much of the native vegetation intact. Thousands of pylons protrude from the ground amid vegetation that has been trimmed, but not plowed.