BrightSource passes tortoise hurdle to continue solar project

On Friday solar company BrightSource Energy received approval from the Bureau of Land Management to restart the part of its Ivanpah Solar power plant project that was suspended in April of this year in order to reassess the project’s impact on desert tortoises.

The BLM issued a “notice to proceed” after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completed a new biological opinion to take into account the more-than-expected number of desert tortoises that have been found around the project site since BrightSource began construction last October. The previous biological opinion anticipated finding around 40 adult tortoises for the duration of the multiyear project, the BLM’s spokeswoman, Erin Curtis, told me in April. But BrightSource, which hires dozens of biologists to monitor the site, had found 39 tortoises by April 15. BrightSource then stopped work for phases 2 and 3 of the 392 MW solar project in the Mojave Desert.

The project is one of nearly a dozen solar power plants in Calif., Ariz. and other southwestern states that received an expedited review process by the BLM. President Obama has made renewable energy development a priority for creating jobs and producing electricity from cleaner sources. Many of the solar power projects in the southwestern states have gotten loans or loan guarantees from the federal government. BrightSource has gotten a $1.6 billion loan guarantee for the $2.2 billion project. The government promises to pay back the loan, which comes from Treasury’s Federal Financing Bank, if BrightSource can’t.

Ivanpah is BrightSource’s first solar farm, and it has gotten investments from NRG Energy (s NRG) and Google (s goog), which put up $168 million.

The project remains on schedule despite the work suspension, BrightSource said in a statement on Friday. Any significant delay of the project would have been bad news, not just because it would hamper the company’s ability to deliver electricity on time to utilities Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison. It also could negatively affect BrightSource’s plan to raise money by going public. The company filed for a $250 million initial public offering in April.

The new biological opinion tells BrightSource what it needs to do to protect certain species of plants and animals. The company is responsible for tagging, quarantining and testing captured tortoises for diseases and other health issues before placing them elsewhere to protect them from construction activities. Federal biologists previously underestimated the number of tortoises, possibly because they conducted the survey mostly during the drought year of 2007, when the tortoise population was smaller than usual, Curtis said.

The BLM biologists issued a survey in April that looked at the potential number of adult and young tortoises not only on the project site but also in an area next to the boundaries. The survey said there will likely be anywhere from 86 to 162 adults found within the project site. The Fish and Wildlife Service then used the new data to draft the new biological opinion.