Your Tax Dollars Subsidize Desert Solar Energy

What is going on with the California based Ivanpah solar plant?

wind power alternative green energyIn April 2011, Brightsource Energy received a loan guarantee of $1.6 billionfrom the Department of Energy for the California-based Ivanpah project. It’s located along I-15 at the California-Nevada border, 29 miles northeast of Barstow. The loan amount was three times that given by the DOE to the now bankrupt California solar company Solyndra.

At the time of the April 2011 loan, the man at the controls as board chairman of Brightsource was John Bryson. He served in that capacity from September 2010 to January  2012. The loan was approved by then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a fellow Californian and friend of Bryson.

An interesting turn of events occurred during his tenure. On May 31, 2011, Bryson was nominated by President Obama to serve as U.S. Commerce Secretary. Bryson held the post until seizures and car accidents forced his resignation on June 21, 2012.

Bryson also was the director of Southern California Edison from 1990 until he retired in 2008, guiding the firm during the politically treacherous 1996 reorganization of the California electricity system and the 2000-2001 California Electricity Crisis. Curiously, in 1970 Bryson co-founded, with John Adams, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an  environmental defense law firm.

The huge taxpayer capital risk investment for Brightsource Energy’s groundbreaking solar project has caused, of all things, complaints by environmentalists.  In addition, the massive 2.8 square-mile solar project has faced numerous construction delays and lawsuits.

Tortoises

Soon after construction began in the hot desert sands, the project was halted when desert tortoises were found to be threatened by the project.  Brightsource was forced to spend $56 million and hire a team of 100 biologists to appease environmental organizations, which claimed the company underestimated the tortoise population when it designed the project.

Fearing legal action, Brightsource moved 166 juvenile and adult tortoises to a pen 7 miles away from the solar project.  However, it has been reported the tortoises have been attempting to escape from the pens and return to their native habitat, causing ongoing debates of possible legal action by some environmental groups.

In addition, the local native-American tribes alleged the Ivanpah plant would cause harm to their sacred sites and joined environmentalists in filing a lawsuit that included Brightsource Energy’s Ivanpah plant.

Recently, another of Brightsource Energy’s solar development projects, a $2.7-billion power plant in Inyo County, hit an unexpected snag and has been put on hold indefinitely.  The Hidden Hills project was working its way through the complicated Sacramento application process and was about to receive its final stamp of approval from the California Energy Commission in April when the Brightsource application was suddenly suspended.

Brightsource’s problems don’t end with Ivanpah or Hidden Hills.  Last year the firm shelved another massive 3,200-acre solar plant project, the Rio Mesa solar field, located in the Mojave dessert near Blythe.  A company spokesman said that project hit unexpected design problems that required a series of new engineering and environmental analyses and that the project might be resuscitated at some future date.

Water towers

Speaking of design problems, both the technology being used at Ivanpah and now-on-hold Hidden Hills project remain problematical to many.   Called “tower power” technology, huge 450-foot water towers are built in the center of the solar-panel fields. There are hundreds of thousands of mirrors reflecting direct sunlight shining on a boiler atop the towers.  The water is then heated inside the towers, creating steam and thus driving the electric generating turbines.

Originally, Ivanpah was designed to include seven skyscraper towers.  However, when the desert tortoise showed up, but the number was reduced to three.  At Hidden Hills, only two towers were designed for the center of the proposed solar field.

With all of the delays, Brightsource now promises construction is almost complete and the Ivanpah project will come online by the end of the year. However, whether the taxpayers will see any benefit from their government investment and the “power tower” technology is still a topic of debate.

Will it work as designed? Or will this be like other taxpayer-funded alternative energy projects gone bust — Solyndra, A123 Systems and Fisker, to name a few?

And what happened to John Bryson? He’s now a Distinguished Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The center is headed by Jane Harman, formerly a powerful California congresswoman and heir to the Harman/Kardon electronics fortune.

(Warren Duffy is a reporter for CalWatchdog.)