eSolar on Wednesday fired up its five-megawatt Sierra “power tower” solar farm outside Los Angeles during an opening ceremony that featured such green tech luminaries as Google.org climate change director Dan Reicher and Dan Kammen of the University of California at Berkeley.
But the speaker that caught my eye was environmentalist David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California non-profit that is working with California Senator Dianne Feinstein to put hundreds of thousands of acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to industrial-scale solar power plants.
“By siting their project on disturbed lands, eSolar has avoided degrading treasured public lands and core areas of biodiversity,” said Myers. “This is an important distinction from the solar firms that propose to industrialize 600,000 acres of pristine California desert lands belonging to the American people.”
I’ve written extensively on Green Wombat and Grist about eSolar’s technology and CEO Bill Gross’ vision of a software-driven solar revolution that taps computing power to drive down renewable energy costs. (Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar has a partnership with energy producer NRG (NRG) to build power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX), PG&E (PCG) and other utilities.)
But eSolar’s strategy of building relatively small-scale modular solar farms on privately owned agricultural land is also allowing it to avoid — so far — fights over endangered species that have slowed big solar power plants planned for federally owned land in the Mojave Desert.
While Myers was praising eSolar at the Sierra ceremony, his environmental group, as I wrote in Wednesday’s New York Times, has been raising issues about the impact of Tessera Solar’s planned 8,230-acre, 850-megawatt power plant on such Mojave species as the desert tortoise, Mojave fringe-toed lizard and Nelson’s bighorn sheep.
Meanwhile, Defenders of Wildlife, a local chapter of the Sierra Club and other national and grassroots environmental groups are worried about the impact of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah solar farm on the imperiled desert tortoise. The Sierra Club chapter recently proposed that BrightSource move the solar power plant to avoid disturbing habitat currently occupied by desert tortoises.
eSolar has spent $30 million acquiring previously disturbed ag land — mostly in California. While that should speed development of its solar farms as it won’t need federal approval to build, there’s no guarantee, of course, that the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup won’t also run into critter problems.
Just ask Ausra, the Silicon Valley solar company that’s building a 177-megawatt power plant on ag land in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast. That project has been bogged down in disputes over the solar farm’s consequences for a plethora of species and the cumulative impact of two other solar power plants planned for the same area that First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWR) want to build.
Still, eSolar’s focus on location, location, location could pay off. While the five-megawatt Sierra demonstration plant is a small project, the fact that company was able to get it built in a year is no doubt a competitive advantage.
“This plant delivers the lowest-cost solar electricity in history,” said Gross, the founder of tech incubator Idealab, at the ceremony in the L.A. ex-urb of Lancaster. “We currently compete with natural gas and as we continue to drive down the cost, we will even compete with coal.”
And if eSolar continues to carefully select sites for its solar farms it won’t have to worry about environmentalists like David Myers of the Wildlands Conservancy.
“You can see why the entire environmental community is so excited about a firm that’s model is to use disturbed lands,” said Myers after slamming an unnamed eSolar competitor for trying to build a solar farm in what he described as a fragile desert ecoystem. “We can’t say enough great things about eSolar.”
With that, Gross walked over to a computer, pressed a button and 24,000 mirrors began to focus sunlight on two water-filled boilers sitting atop two towers. As the intense heat vaporized the water, steam flowed to a power block to drive an electricity generating turbine.