BrightSource's Massive Solar Projects Facing Approval Delay

BrightSource, a solar startup that is looking to build some of the first massive solar projects in the California desert, is facing a possible regulatory delay and has been attending hearings on how to streamline the approval process. The Associated Press noted the delay citing state filings, and we just caught up with BrightSource Senior Director of Corporate Communications Keely Wachs, who was heading into a hearing in Sacramento this morning on the subject and who confirmed that “the approval process is a bit behind.”

BrightSource had been aiming to have its solar project approved by the end of October, but both the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) need to conduct environmental assessments and give approval. That hasn’t happened yet. BrightSource’s solar project is one of the first in line to seek approval from the BLM, so there is a lot of new territory to cover, and both the CEC and BLM are resource constrained. The BLM was so overwhelmed with solar applications that it previously called for a temporary moratorium on solar applications on BLM land, but later reversed that decision in the face of a lot of criticism.

BrightSource is asking that the CEC and BLM review its projects in parallel, to help streamline the process. Wachs said that at this point BrightSource’s projects are “continuing to move forward on schedule.” He also noted that future delays could have broader implications for the market, and could delay both bringing more clean energy to Californians and meeting the state’s renewable energy goals. BrightSource has a deal to sell a potential 900 MW of solar power to northern California utility PG&E, from five large solar thermal plants, which combined could cost between $2 billion and $3 billion to build.

BrightSource has considerable capital to make its case to the CEC and BLM. The Oakland-based company is one of the more well-funded, well-staffed solar startups out there that is looking to build solar thermal plants in the California deserts, and it has raised more than $160 million, including a massive $115 million Series C round announced in May. Investors include, BP Alternative Energy, StatoilHydro Venture, Black River, VantagePoint Venture Partners, Morgan Stanley, DBL Investors, Draper Fisher Jurvetson and Chevron Technology Ventures.

BrightSource is also well-connected. The AP mentions in its story, as well as several previous stories, a link between BrightSource investors and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., his wife’s cousin, and Terry Tamminen, his former environmental secretary, are advisors to VantagePoint Venture Partners, which has a stake in BrightSource. It’s worth knowing about the connection, but the reality is this is often how business gets done in Silicon Valley. VantagePoint Venture Partners has a long list of advisors, including: UK environmentalist and former CIO of BP exec John Leggate, green business media mogul Joel Makower, Chelsea Sexton of Who Killed the Electric Car fame, former Director of the CIA James Woolsey, and green architect Bill McDonough.