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Oakland Invades the Desert

Four East Bay companies are leading the rush to develop utility-scale solar power. But some environmentalists suggest there's a big price to pay.



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No single factor is responsible for the fact that four of the nation's largest solar companies are based in the East Bay, but the area's central location, affordable rents, and burgeoning green corridor all played a role. Two of the companies, FirstSolar and Solar Millennium, occupy separate floors in the same glass-sheathed modern office building at the corner of 11th Street and Broadway in downtown Oakland. BrightSource is located nearby at 20th and Harrison streets, while SunPower is housed in Richmond's historic Ford Point building.

Together these companies maintain an air of cooperative competition. According to SunPower's director of market development, Greg Blue, they have close ties but are also acutely aware of the competition among them — to develop the best technologies, attract the best investors, and sign the best power purchase agreements with utility companies. They're partners in the Large-Scale Solar Association, a California-based trade association with twelve members, but won't share what Blue calls "commercial secrets."

SunPower, founded 25 years ago in San Jose, is one of the oldest solar companies in the world. It has 800 employees, split between offices in Richmond and San Jose. The company pioneered the photovoltaic solar power plant business, said corporate communications director Ingrid Ekstrom, and has built 550 solar plants around the world. Last year it completed construction of the US's largest photovoltaic plant in Florida. The company also claims to have the most efficient solar panels available on the market today.

Yet SunPower's biggest accomplishment still lies ahead. In a few years, the company plans to erect its most massive solar power plant yet, the 250-megawatt California Valley Solar Ranch — producing ten times more energy than the Florida plant — in a sunny valley east of San Luis Obispo. The 6.7-square-mile project, which Blue said should qualify for a treasury grant covering 30 percent of its costs, will go before a county vote in January and, once approved, take up to three years to build.

Solar Millennium, meanwhile, is planning a solar thermal plant that surpasses both the California Valley Solar Ranch and BrightSource's Ivanpah project. If completed as proposed, the eleven-square-mile plant in Blythe, California, near the Arizona border, will be the largest solar plant of any type ever built, both in size and energy production. Solar Millennium, a subsidiary of a Germany-based corporation, will sell the plant's 1,000 megawatts of output, enough to power approximately 300,000 homes, to Southern California Edison. The $6 billion project, which was approved by the California Energy Commission in late October and features Chevron as a leading partner, could be online by the middle of 2013.

Adjacent to the Blythe site, FirstSolar has already installed a 21-megawatt plant of its own. The company is also planning to join SunPower in San Louis Obispo County with a 500-megawatt plant that is still in the environmental review stage; spokesperson Alan Bernheimer said he expects the county to issue a final ruling sometime next year. In addition to three more California projects — including one adjacent to BrightSource's in the Ivanpah Valley — the company is planning six out-of-state projects: three in Nevada, two in New Mexico, and one in Arizona. Together, they'll produce more than two gigawatts of power.

FirstSolar plants, which are designed to last 25 years, use photovoltaic solar technology. Bernheimer said the company's extensive project list makes it the largest developer of PV projects in the country. Its panels are the cheapest on the market, he noted, and boast an energy-payback time of eight months. They're produced in Ohio, Malaysia, and Germany, with the latter country providing the bulk of the company's business to date.

BrightSource, meanwhile, says it's actively developing more than four gigawatts of solar thermal power at nine plants on public and private land throughout the Southwest. The company is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley, Chevron, and BP, and helmed by 45-year-old Oakland resident John Wollard, who first encountered BrightSource while working as a green-energy venture capitalist.

No project by any of these East Bay companies has escaped the environmental gauntlet unscathed, and it's a given that FirstSolar will run into resistance of its own when it tries to develop its Stateline project next to BrightSource's in the Ivanpah Valley. Environmental concerns have dogged BrightSource's project since it was first proposed there in 2007, and upon the project's completion, the company expects to have spent at least $34 million on managing them. FirstSolar's plant is proposed to have a significantly larger footprint than BrightSource's, and with a project border only a quarter mile away on the same side of the highway, it's certain to run into many of the same issues. In a way, the ongoing drama in the Ivanpah Valley has become a microcosm of the wider struggle between solar power development and desert conservation.

The battle for the desert can be curiously complex, involving an array of natural resources. BrightSource's dry-cooled, closed-loop system will use water only to wash its mirrors: one hundred acre-feet a year, enough to supply 200 homes, all drawn from underground aquifers. The company also took steps to reduce its impact on slow-growing desert plants. Mirrors will be mounted on pillars rather than concrete blocks to reduce ground impacts, vegetation surrounding the mirrors will be trimmed to eighteen inches rather than bulldozed, and species of special concern will be dug up in their natural soil and transported off-site. Meanwhile, Wachs said, grading for roads will be kept at a bare minimum. These steps will also reduce damage to fragile living desert topsoils, some of which are thousands of years old and capable of carbon sequestration equal to that of a temperate forest. However, they'll likely be heavily impacted at less sensitive sites.

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