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When it comes to building solar thermal plants — massive projects that use mirrors and lenses to harness the sun’s heat for power — in California’s deserts, some of the more offbeat hurdles can be the biggest stumbling blocks. Take the cute animal catch: Todd Woody reports that solar thermal startup BrightSource has proposed to scale back its first plant — the first new solar thermal project in California in two decades — by 12 percent (and 23 percent in certain portions) to reduce the number of desert tortoises that would be affected.
The change would reduce the plant’s generation capacity to 392 MW from 440 MW, says Woody. The environmentalists quoted in the article aren’t satisfied (not a big enough change), but BrightSource says it can’t reduce the project any more and still get it financed.
Back in 2008 the CEO of Ausra, Robert Fishman, told me that the company had also encountered issues with endangered species, specifically the desert lizard, while looking for appropriate locations for construction. Fishman thought the solution to protecting endangered species and getting plants built would be to buy an equal-sized piece of land as the plant and keep it as a nature reserve.
I’m not sure if BrightSource is considering that approach, or if it would help to alleviate any disturbance for the 25 desert tortoises that inhabit the region where BrightSource aims to build its plant. While I fully support making sure clean power plants are environmentally sound and sustainable, high-profile cases like this often end up turning a spotlight on some of the more extreme environmentalists and give fodder to statements like those from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, who says the arguments from idealistic environmentalists can be sheer nonsense and damaging.
The other offbeat hurdle holding back BrightSource’s first plant is the boring stuff: permitting and siting of the plants and the transmission lines. Last year at the National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas BrightSource CEO John Woolard called upon policy leaders to roll up their sleeves and help speed the administrative processing along.
At an event on Thursday night, where the advisers to the California gubernatorial candidates shared their viewpoints on greentech and energy policy, panelists and audience members discussed ways that the candidates could help speed up the slow and lengthy permitting process for solar thermal plants in California. Previous widely reported comments from Woolard about how BrightSource is two years into what was supposed to be a 6-month process were echoed throughout the room as proof that the permitting system is flawed and needs to change.
For BrightSource both the cute animals and the red tape hurdles are major. To qualify for a loan guarantee with the DOE, reports Woody, BrightSource has to start construction before the end of the year.