The plant, in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada border, can power 140,000 homes
February 13, 2014 9:30PM ET
A solar plant in the Mojave Desert — the largest of its kind in the world — officially opened Thursday, and began providing energy to customers in California.
The opening is seen as a milestone for a growing industry that is testing the balance between wilderness conservation and the pursuit of green energy across the American West.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, formally opened Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles ranging from relocating protected tortoises to assessing the impact on Mojave milkweed and other plants.
"The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy," U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement after attending a dedication ceremony at the site. "This project shows that building a clean-energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions and fosters American innovation."
The $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc. and BrightSource Energy, can produce nearly 400 megawatts — enough power for 140,000 homes. It began making electricity last year.
While solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation's power output, thousands of projects from large, utility-scale plants to small production sites are under construction or being planned, particularly across the sun-drenched Southwest.
The plant's dedication comes as government continues to push for development of greener, cleaner power. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration data, the cost of building and operating a new solar thermal power plant over its lifetime is greater than generating natural gas, coal or nuclear power.
But that could be changing soon. Ken Johnson, a spokesman for the solar association, said in a statement that solar systems have seen "dramatic price declines" in the last few years.
Comparing the production costs of solar energy versus coal, oil and gas, or nuclear ignores costs resulting from environmental pollution and accidents from traditional energy sources, environmentalists say. Taking this into account could make solar a "cheaper" option.
That would be good for utilities in California, which must obtain a third of their electricity from solar and other renewable sources by 2020.
The Ivanpah site, about 45 miles southwest of Las Vegas, has virtually unbroken sunshine most of the year and is near transmission lines that carry power to consumers.
Using technology known as solar-thermal, nearly 350,000 computer-controlled mirrors roughly the size of a garage door reflect sunlight to boilers atop 459-foot towers. The sun's power is used to heat water in the boilers' tubes and make steam, which drives turbines to create electricity.
While many people are familiar with rooftop solar, or photovoltaic panels, "these are a little bit different. This takes the sun's rays and reflects them onto towers," said NRG spokesman Jeff Holland.
Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land.
The California Energy Commission concluded that while the solar plant would impose "significant impacts on the environment ... the benefits the project would provide override those impacts."
Such disputes are likely to continue for years as more companies seek to develop solar, wind and geothermal plants on land treasured by environmentalists who also support the growth of renewable energy.
In 2012, the federal government established 17 "solar energy zones" in an attempt to direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles. The zones comprise about 450 square miles in six states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
Government documents show dozens of dead birds from sparrows to hawks have been found on the site, some with melted feathers. The suspected causes of death include collisions with mirrors and scorching.
The Western Watersheds Project is continuing to push a lawsuit against federal agencies that reviewed the Ivanpah project. Its California director, Michael J. Connor, said alternatives to the site were not considered and serious environmental impacts, including fragmenting the tortoise population, were ignored.
NRG did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
According to statistics compiled by the Energy Department, the solar industry employs more than 140,000 Americans at about 6,100 companies, with employment increasing nearly 20 percent since the fall of 2012.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press