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Can Google help defuse a simmering green civil war between renewable energy advocates and wildlife conservationists in the American West?

That’s the idea behind a new Google Earth mapping project launched Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society. Path to Green Energy will identify areas in 13 western states potentially suitable for massive megawatt solar power plants, wind farms, transmission lines and other green energy projects. The app will also pinpoint critical habitat for protected wildlife such as the desert tortoise in California and Wyoming’s sage grouse as well as other environmentally sensitive lands.

“This was information that was unavailable or very scattered,” said Google.org program director David Bercovich at a press conference. “The potential cost savings from this will be enormous. If we can get people to the right areas and streamline the process that will have enormous benefits in getting clean energy online faster.”

NRDC senior attorney Johanna Wald said her group already is using Path to Green Energy in New Mexico to help plan a new transmission project. “Careful siting is the key to renewable energy development,” she said, noting that NRDC has mapped 860 million acres. “We’re not greenlighting development on places that are on our map but we’re providing a framework for discussion.”

siting2The unveiling of Path to Green Energy comes two weeks after California Senator Dianne Feinstein announced she would introduce legislation to put as many as 600,000 acres of the Mojave Desert off limits to renewable energy development to protect endangered wildlife and their habitats.  Solar developers have filed lease claims on a million acres of federal land in the California Mojave and there are state and federal efforts already under way to identify green energy zones across the West.

Path to Green Energy is designed to give regulators and developers a tool to choose the best potential sites for solar and wind farms so they don’t get bogged down in years-long and multimillion-dollar fights over wildlife.  Ausra, BrightSource Energy and other developers of the first half-dozen solar power plant projects moving through the licensing process in California have spent big sums on hiring wildlife consultants who spend thousands of hours surveying sites for desert tortoises, blunt-nosed leopard lizards and other protected species.

The Google Earth app won’t do away with the need to do such detailed environmental review but puts in one package a variety of information that developers must now cobble together themselves — if they can find it. Path to Green Energy could also prove valuable to utilities like PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) as more and more projects are proposed and regulators scrutinize the cumulative impact of Big Solar power plants across regions.

For instance, in California’s San Luis Obispo County, three large-scale solar farms are being planned within a few miles of each other by Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). That has resulted in delays as wildlife officials initiate studies looking at how all those projects affect the movement of wildlife throughout the area. Going forward, Path to Green Energy will give developers a snapshot of where the wild things are, as well as wildlife corridors to help them avoid siting one plant too close to another in a way that may impede animals’ migration. That could save millions of dollars in mitigation costs – money builders must spend to acquire land to replace wildlife habitat taken for a power plant project as well as avoid fights with environmental groups that have become increasingly uneasy about Big Solar projects.

If the desert tortoise is the critter to avoid when building solar power plants in the Mojave, the sage grouse poses problems for Wyoming wind farms. Brian Rutledge, executive director of Audubon Wyoming, said Path to Green Energy shows the densities of sage grouse across the state, allowing developers to stay clear of those areas.

“We get a solid indication of where energy development shouldn’t go,” he said. “Just as important, we get a better sense of the places that should be evaluated for wind turbine farms and transmission lines. The maps make clear that there is plenty of room for green energy.”

The payback from using Web 2.0 software could indeed be tremendous, given that Google (GOOG) spent a scant $50,000 in donations to NRDC and Audubon to create the maps.

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photo: Wild Rose Images

California Senator Dianne Feinstein’s move to put a large swath of the Mojave Desert off-limits to renewable energy development is splitting the environmental movement and could derail some two dozen solar and wind power projects the state needs to comply with its ambitious climate change laws.

On the firing line are 17 massive solar power plants and six wind farms planned for federal land — land that would be designated a national monument under legislation Feinstein intends to introduce. The solar projects in question would be built by a range of companies, from startups BrightSource Energy and Stirling Energy Systems to corporate heavyweights Goldman Sachs (GS) and FPL (FPL), according to federal documents. (For the complete list, see below.)

The companies are among scores that have filed lease claims on a million acres of acres of desert dirt controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. California utilities PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) have signed long-term power purchase agreements for some of the projects now in jeopardy and are counting on the electricity they would produce to meet state-mandated renewable energy targets. PG&E itself has filed a solar power plant land claim in the proposed national monument.

The area of the desert in dispute is some 600,000 acres formerly owned by Catellus, the real estate arm of the Union Pacific Railroad, and donated to the federal government a decade ago by the Wildlands Conservancy, a Southern California environmental group. About 210,000 of those acres are managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which opened part of the land to renewable energy projects.

“Many of the sites now being considered for leases are completely inappropriate and will lead to the wholesale destruction of some of the most pristine areas in the desert,” Feinstein wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar released last week, notifying him that she will introduce legislation to designate the former Catellus lands a national monument. “Beyond protecting national parks and wilderness from development, the conservation of these lands has helped to ensure the sustainability of the entire desert ecosystem by preserving the vital wildlife corridors.”

The Catellus land controlled by the BLM forms something of a golden triangle between the Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve in Southern California and are particularly coveted for renewable energy development because of its proximity to transmission lines.

Alan Stein, a deputy district manager for the BLM in California, told Green Wombat that the solar and wind lease claims are in areas that are not designated as wilderness or critical habitat for protected species like the desert tortoise. “This is public domain land, ” he says.

Tortoises, however, are found across the Mojave, and battles over Big Solar’s impact on endangered wildlife are quietly brewing in several solar power plant licensing cases now being reviewed by the California Energy Commission.  Environmentalists find themselves walking a thin green line, trying to balance their interest in promoting carbon-free energy with protecting fragile desert landscapes and a host of threatened animals and plants.

Take BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah 400-megawatt solar power plant complex on the California-Nevada border. The three solar power plants to be built by the Oakland-based company will supply electricity to PG&E and Southern California Edison. But the project will also destroy some 4,000 acres of desert tortoise habitat and at least 25 tortoises will have to be relocated – a somewhat risky proposition as previous efforts in other cases have resulted in the deaths of the animals.

On Wednesday, the California Energy Commission granted two national environmental groups – the Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club – the right to intervene in the Ivanpah case. “Defenders strongly supports … the development of renewable energy in California,” Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, wrote to the energy commission in a Jan. 23 letter.  “Defenders has several serious concerns about the potential impacts of this project on a number of rare, declining and listed species and on their associated desert habitat and waters.”

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Johanna Wald wrote a letter with the Wilderness Society expressing concern over the impact of Ivanpah project on the desert tortoise but also made a strong statement of support for renewable energy development. “Our public lands harbor substantial wind, solar, and geothermal resources,” wrote Wald, who serves on a state task force to identify appropriate areas for renewable energy development. “Developing some of these resources will be important to creating a sustainable energy economy and combating climate change.”

The big national enviro groups are working with the government and power plant developers to create zones in the Mojave where renewable energy projects would be permitted while setting aside other areas that are prime habitat and wildlife corridors. A similar effort is underway on the federal level to analyze the desert-wide impact of renewable energy development.

Local environmental organizations, however, have split with the Big Green groups over developing the desert and other rural areas. In San Luis Obispo County,  Ausra, SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar’s (FSLR) plans to build three huge solar farms within miles of each other has prompted some local residents worried about the impact on wildlife to organize in opposition to the projects.

And some small Mojave Desert green groups pledge to go to court to stop big solar projects. “We don’t want to see the Endangered Species Act gutted for the sake of mega solar projects,” veteran grass roots activist Phil Klasky told Green Wombat last year for a story on the solar land rush in the Mojave. “I can say the smaller environmental organizations I’m involved with are planning to challenge these projects.”

It would be unwise to underestimate Klasky. In the 1990s, he helped lead a long-running  and successful campaign to scuttle the construction of a low-level radioactive waste dump in tortoise territory in the Mojave’s Ward Valley – now a prime solar spot.

Still, while California’s senior senator’s move in the Mojave may exacerbate rifts in the environmental movement over renewable energy, it also could galvanize efforts to resolve critter conflicts in a comprehensive way. Otherwise, environmentalists of varying hues may find themselves fighting each other rather than global warming.

Update: I just had a conversation with BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs, who takes issue with my characterization that the Ivanpah project will “destroy” desert tortoise habitat. He points out that the company is taking care to minimize the impact of the power plant on the surrounding desert and that wildlife may still occupy the site. It would be more accurate to say that the project will remove desert tortoise habitat from active use during Ivanpah’s construction and operation.

(Below is a list of solar and wind projects that fall within the proposed Mojave national monument. Note: Solar Investments is a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs and Boulevard Associates is a subsidiary of FPL.)

source:  BLM

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Images: BrightSource Energy

A ray of sunshine amid the economic gloom: While some solar companies struggle through the downturn, BrightSource Energy on Wednesday morning announced the world’s largest solar energy deal to date – a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison with 1,300 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.

That’s more than twice the size of the previous world’s-biggest-solar-deal, a 553-megawatt power purchase agreement in 2007 between California utility PG&E and Israel’s Solel. BrightSource itself last year inked a deal to provide PG&E (PCG) with 500-megawatts of solar electricity with an option for 400 megawatts more.

“This proves the energy industry is recognizing the role solar thermal will play as we de-carbonize our energy supply,”  BrightSource CEO John Woolard said Wednesday at a press conference.  “We believe now more than ever the time is right for large-scale solar thermal.”

solarhOakland-based BrightSource will build seven solar power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX) using its “power tower” technology. Thousands of sun-tracking mirrors called heliostats focus the sun’s rays on a water-filled boiler that sits atop a tower. The intense heat creates steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity. BrightSource has built a prototype power plant in Israel.

BrightSource has raised more than $160 million from a blue-chip group of investors that includes Google (GOOG), Morgan Stanley (MS) and VantagePoint Venture Partners as well as a clutch of oil giants – Chevron (CVX), BP (BP) and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

If all the solar power plants are built, BrightSource’s deal with Southern California Edison will generate enough electricity to power about 845,000 homes. The agreement is a vote of confidence in the solar industry at a time when the financial crisis has forced BrightSource rivals like OptiSolar to lay off workers while Ausra retools its strategy to focus on supplying solar thermal technology to power plant developers rather than building projects itself.

Given the economic collapse, why are these massive megawatt deals still being done? First, California utilities are under tight deadlines to ratchet up the amount of electricity they obtain from renewable sources – 20% by the end of 2010 and 33% by 2020. Second, it costs nothing to sign a contract – no money has yet changed hands, and won’t unless the plants are built and begin producing electricity.

In fact, not a kilowatt of juice has been generated from the more than 5,000 megawatts of Big Solar contracts signed over the past four years by California’s three investor owned utilities (the third being San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) ).  Still, a long-term utility contract is key for a startup like BrightSource to obtain the billions in financing required to build large-scale solar power plants. The terms of utility contracts – such as the cost of the solar electricity produced – are closely held secrets but are worth billions, if a 2008 power purchase agreement between Spanish solar company Abengoa and utility Arizona Public Service is any guide.

A significant hurdle for BrightSource – and many other solar developers – is the expansion of the transmission grid to connect remote power plants to cities. BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs says the company has 4,200 megawatts of solar power plant projects under development.

The Southern California Edison deal is something of a homecoming for American-Israeli solar pioneer Arnold Goldman, BrightSource’s founder and chairman. In the 1980s, during the first solar boom, his Luz International built nine solar power plants in the Mojave. Those plants, most are now operated by FPL (FPL), continue to provide electricity to Edison.

The first BrightSource solar farm for Edison is expected to go online in early 2013. It’s a 100 megawatt power plant part of BrightSource’s Ivanpah complex to be built on federal land on the California-Nevada border in the Mojave Desert. That plant is currently wending its way through a complex state and federal licensing process.

Just how complex was illustrated by a meeting Green Wombat attended Tuesday in Sacramento, where a roomful of state and federal officials spent hours discussing the environmental impact of a 750-megawatt solar power plant to be built by Phoenix’s Stirling Energy Systems for San Diego Gas & Electric that would plant 30,000 solar dishes in the desert. A second Stirling solar farm will be built for Southern California Edision. When the deals were announced in 2005, they were the world’s largest at the time.

PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee recently said his utility will begin directly investing in solar power projects. On Wednesday, Southern California Edison renewable energy executive Stuart Hemphill said Edison would consider requests from solar power developers to take ownership stakes in their projects but prefers to sign power purchase agreements.

“We do see solar as the large untapped resource, particularly in Southern California,” said Hemphill.

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photo: Ausra

When Green Wombat sat down for a chat with Ausra founder David Mills back in September 2007, he allowed that it was not unreasonable to expect the Silicon Valley solar startup to soon be building several massive megawatt solar power plants a year. The optimism was not unwarranted. After all, in the space of 12 months Ausra had relocated from Sydney to Palo Alto, raised $40 million from A-list venture capitalists and was about to ink a deal with utility PG&E for a 177-megawatt  solar power project.

That was then. This month Ausra laid off 10% of its 108 employees amid a move to stop building Big Solar projects – for now – to focus on providing its solar thermal technology to other power plant developers and to industries that use steam. (Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector technology deploys flat mirrors that sit low to the ground and concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors. The superheated water creates steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine.)

“I think our competitors will figure this out sooner or later but nobody’s going from a five-megawatt project to a 500-megawatt project. No one’s going to finance that,” Ausra CEO Bob Fishman told Green Wombat. “If you look at the amount of money it takes to be involved in the project development business, that’s not something a startup can do.”

At least any time soon. Ausra last year opened a robotic factory in Las Vegas to make mirror arrays and other components for the many power plant projects it had on the drawing boards. Just three months ago the company flipped the switch on its five-megawatt Kimberlina demonstration power plant outside Bakersfield. But as the credit crunch hit, financing for billion-dollar solar power projects evaporated. Then in October, Congress passed legislation allowing utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to claim a 30% investment tax credit for solar projects. As the only well-capitalized institutions left standing in the energy game, utilities are stepping forward as investors.

PG&E CEO Peter Darbee says he’s prepared to make direct investments in solar power plants – projects the utility needs to comply with a California mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020. Under pressure to meet those targets, California utilities have signed more than four gigawatts worth of power purchase agreements with solar power plant startups like BrightSource Energy, Solel, Stirling Energy Systems and eSolar. Utilities also have begun signing deals for electricity produced by smaller scale photovoltaic power plants built by companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA).

Fishman said Ausra will complete the 177-megawatt Carrizo Energy Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County on California’s central coast to supply electricity to PG&E. “If Peter Darbee wants to own Carrizo rather than buy the electricity, we’re willing to do it. It makes sense,” he says.

Ausra will also will complete a second big solar power plant planned for Arizona. But the company has quietly let drop a Florida project for utility FPL (FPL) and is negotiating to offload lease claims it filed on federal land in Arizona and Nevada for solar power plants during the solar land rush.

“Other projects in the pipeline we’ll be selling to utilities or developers for a modest amount of cash with a commitment that those developers must use our technology,” says Fishman.

Fishman notes that the cost of licensing a solar power plant can be $5 million to $10 million a year – and in California it’s a multi-year process – so Ausra will realize some immediate savings by morphing into a technology provider.

Customers for Ausra’s technology include oil companies that could inject solar-generated steam in oil wells to enhance recovery of thick petroleum as well as food processing plants and other heavy users of steam. Fishman just returned from a trip to the Middle East where he says he held talks in Kuwait, Qatar and Dubai about using Ausra’s technology for oil recovery and desalinization.

Going forward, he says Ausra’s focus will be on medium-sized power plants. “Maybe next year we’ll do four projects of 50 megawatts a year. It’s a walk before you run situation,” says Fishman. “The financial customers and financial community are going to insist we do medium scale before we do large scale. We’ll still want to do very large projects but given the project finance market, it’ll be a few years from now.”

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With Big Solar thermal power plants bogged down in bureaucracy and facing environmental and financial hurdles, utilities are turning to smaller-scale thin-film solar stations that can be built in a matter of months.

In late December, PG&E (PCG), for instance, signed a 20-year contract for electricity generated  from a 10-megawatt thin-film solar power plant in Nevada owned by energy giant Sempra (SRE) that was officially dedicated on Thursday. The solar farm was built by First Solar (FSLR) in a scant six months. Meanwhile, the utility’s nearly two gigawatts worth of deals with solar thermal power companies won’t start producing power for another two years at the earliest. (Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric signed agreements with solar dish developer Stirling Energy Systems for 1.75 gigawatts in 2005 and those projects are just now beginning to move through the regulatory approval process.) And the financial crisis has made it more difficult for solar thermal developers to obtain the billions of dollars needed to finance the construction of a massive megawatt power plant.

Solar thermal power plants typically use miles of mirrors to heat a fluid to create steam which drives an electricity-generating turbine. Photovoltaic (or PV) solar farms essentially take solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops and mount them on the ground in huge arrays. (Thin-film solar panels are made by depositing layers of photovoltaic materials on glass or flexible materials.)

“In terms of construction, photovoltaic tends to have a much faster development and construction track,” Roy Kuga, PG&E’s vice president for energy supply, told Green Wombat. “There is a segment of mid-sized projects – in the two to 20 megawatt size – where PV shows a distinct advantage in that market. There’s a huge potential for the PV market to expand.”

That’s good news for companies like First Solar – the Tempe, Ariz.-based company backed by the Walton family that is often called the Google of solar for its stock price and market prowess – and SunPower (SPWRA), the Silicon Valley solar cell maker that’s moved into the power plant-building business.

The speed at which the Sempra-First Solar project went online owes much to the fact that it was built on the site of an existing fossil fuel power plant. “It was already permitted for power generation, transmission existed and it did not have to go through the laborious California permitting process,” says Reese Tisdale, a solar analyst with Emerging Energy Research. “As such, First Solar was able to essentially plug and play.”

Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst with New Energy Finance, says he expects utilities increasingly to bet on smaller-scale photovoltaic farms to help meet state mandates to obtain a growing percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. Just this week, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee said his utility plans to invest in solar power plant projects rather than just buy the power they produce.

“I think a utility could easily integrate, technically and financially, 100 megawatts of PV,” Bullard says.  If something is falling behind on your big solar thermal projects, you can plug in PV. I think you’ll see more of this with California utilities and I expect to see it more in Florida and North Carolina. It’s a great runaround to issues of siting and transmission.”

That’s because in California photovoltaic power plants do not need approval from the California Energy Commission. And smaller-scale plants take up far less land and can be built close to existing transmission lines. Most large solar thermal power plants typically are planned for the Mojave Desert and require the construction of expensive power lines to connect them to the grid.

The modular nature of PV solar farms means they can begin generating electricity as each segment is completed while a solar thermal plant only goes online once the entire project is finished.

“Certainly there is a sweet spot in which the project is large enough to gain advantages of scale,” says Tisdale. “Also, these small-to-mid-size systems can be spread about a transmission network, instead of at one site.”

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Photo: Todd Woody

The land rush to stake prime sites in the Mojave Desert for solar power plants has moved east from California to a state that knows a thing or two about desert dreaming and scheming — Nevada.

When Green Wombat’s story on the solar land rush was published in the July 21 issue of Fortune (see “The Southwest desert’s real estate boom”), solar energy developers, financiers and speculators had filed lease claims on 226,000 acres of federal land in Nevada. Today, 702,000 acres are in play, largely thanks to Goldman Sachs’ aggressive moves to lock up land. The New York investment giant has put claims on about 300,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management dirt in the Silver State — in one week alone, it filed claims on some 187,000 acres.

Given its financial firepower, Goldman’s designs on the desert have been a matter of intense interest. (The firm also has filed claims on 125,000 acres in California.) Goldman (GS) declined to discuss its solar strategy, but a review of BLM documents and interviews with green energy executives sheds some light on its power plans as the financial crisis triggers a shakeout in the solar land rush.

Over the past two years, scores of companies — from Silicon Valley startups to Chevron (CVX) to utility FPL (FPL) — have scrambled to put lease claims on the nation’s best solar real estate to build massive megawatt solar power plants. In California, where utilities face a state mandate to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33% target by 2020, claims have been filed on nearly 1 million acres. If all those solar stations were built, they would generate a staggering 60,000 megawatts of electricity, or nearly twice the power that California currently consumes.

With most of the prime solar hot spots taken in California, the action is moving to sun-drenched states like Nevada where there’s plenty of wide-open desert land. The BLM has yet to issue any leases and is currently evaluating the applications on a first come, served basis. A key consideration: whether the applicant can deploy a viable solar technology.

But with the credit crunch threatening to derail many of those projects, companies are jockeying to score the best sites – those near transmission lines and water – when the weak are weeded out by a failure to obtain financing or a proven solar technology. Some sites have two or three companies queued up in case the first company in line falters.

For its part, Goldman Sachs has brought in its Cogentrix Energy subsidiary to develop its solar projects, according to BLM records.  Cogentrix is a Charlotte, N.C.-based owner and operator of coal and natural gas-fired power plants that Goldman acquired for $2.4 billion in 2003.

“Cogentrix doesn’t have a solar technology,” says Rob Morgan, executive vice president and chief development officer for Silicon Valley solar startup Ausra. He says Ausra, which is building a solar power plant for utility PG&E and itself has staked claims in Arizona and Nevada, has held discussions with Goldman about its solar technology.

European renewable energy companies are also taking advantage of the market turmoil. State and federal records show that Iberdrola Renewables, a spinoff of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, has quietly acquired a year-old Henderson, Nev., startup called Pacific Solar Investments — and its claims on about 180,000 acres of desert land in Arizona, California and Nevada. Iberdrola Renewables is the world’s largest wind developer.

The saga of Pacific Solar shows how cutthroat the competition for solar real estate has become. Just ask Avi Brenmiller, CEO of Israeli solar power plant company Solel, which last year inked a 553-megawatt deal with PG&E (PCG). Brenmiller now finds himself up against his former COO, David Saul, who set up Pacific Solar and began filing land claims while still working for Solel, according to BLM  records and Brenmiller. During this time, Saul also was making land claims on behalf of a second solar company, IDIT, where he serves as CEO, according to filings with the Arizona Secretary of State’s office.

Five days after leaving Solel in August 2007, Saul filed a claim on a California site, getting second in line behind Goldman but beating his former employer to the punch by a week. Solel is now behind Pacific Solar and IDIT on two other sites. “So he’s now a competitor in the land rush, which is one of the problems we face,” Brenmiller told me ruefully when we met in San Francisco earlier this year.

Saul did not respond to requests for comment. Iberdrola Renewables also did not return requests for comment.

French energy company EDF’s U.S. subsidiary, enXco, meanwhile has been joined in the land rush by Portuguese utility company EDP and Germany’s Solar Millennium. Spanish renewable energy heavyweight Acciona’s name doesn’t appear on any land claims. But the CEO of Acciona’s U.S. solar operations, Dan Kabel, started a company called Bull Frog Green Energy that has filed claims on 56,000 acres in California and Nevada. Kabel did not respond to a request for comment.

Other new players in the desert solar game include U.S. energy giant Sempra (SRE), which wants to lease 11,000 acres in California’s Imperial County for a 500-megawatt photovoltaic power plant. That could be good news for solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which is currently building a smaller solar power plant for Sempra in Nevada. Johnson Controls (JCI), the Fortune 100 automotive and power systems conglomerate, has put in a solar land claim in Nevada. Even former hotel magnate Barry Sternlicht, founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts, wants a piece of the action through his Starwood Energy Group, which has filed claims in Arizona and Nevada to build solar power plants.

SolarReserve, a Santa Monica, Calif-based solar startup backed by Citigroup and Credit Suisse, has BLM land claims in California and Nevada and is also negotiating with smaller companies that staked claims on prime solar power plants with access to the transmission grid.

“We have done deals with three or four applicants in the BLM queue,” SolarReserve chief operating officer Kevin Smith tells Green Wombat. “The smaller companies with land claims are typically speculators who don’t have their own technology.”

Industry insiders say a shakeout in the land rush is inevitable, given the credit crunch and too many companies in the chase for the best solar power plant sites.

“A drawn-out financial crisis will reshape the renewable sector, most likely forcing a wave of consolidation,” says Reese Tisdale, research director for Emerging Energy Research, a Cambridge, Mass., consultant. “If someone holds land and someone holds a technology, maybe there’s a deal out there.”

That’s Ausra’s thinking. With the financial crisis putting the billions of dollars needed to build big solar projects out of reach, the company is repositioning itself as a supplier of solar technology as well as a builder of solar power plants.

“We see our future as being a technology provider,” says Ausra’s Morgan, who says the company has had discussions with various power plant developers. “And hopefully a lot of these developers in the BLM queue will use Ausra technology.”

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photo: Ausra

The promise and peril of large-scale renewable energy was on display Thursday as California’s first solar power plant of the 21st century went online near Bakersfield. Under blue skies, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and other politicians heralded the five-megawatt Ausra solar station as the vanguard of a new era of alternative energy that would combat the effects of climate change while building a green economy.

Then the CEO of one of the nation’s largest utilities stepped up to the podium and delivered a reality check. “As we all know the capital markets are in disarray,” said PG&E chief Peter Darbee, whose utility has a contract to buy 177 megawatts of electricity from Ausra. “They’re down 40%. The capital markets are going to distinguish between high-risk projects and low-risk projects and the high-risk projects are not going to get financed in the future.”

But he added, “PG&E stands ready to take on the challenge of financing renewables.”

The utility may just have to.

At the solar industry’s big annual conference in San Diego last week, renewable energy executives were euphoric over Congress’ 11th-hour passage this month of an eight-year investment tax credit that would allow big solar power plants to get up and running, eventually allowing for economies of scale crucial to driving down the price of green electricity. Then a dark clouded drifted over the sun-splashed proceedings in the form of three somber-suited men bearing ominous PowerPoint presentations.

The message from Wall Street: The credit crunch will wallop big solar plant projects that need billions of dollars in financing to get built.

Here’s why. It gets a bit arcane but bear with the wombat. The renewable energy legislation passed as part of the financial bailout package allows solar companies to take a 30% tax credit on the cost of building a power plant. Now most of these companies are startups and have no way to monetize, as they say on the Street and in Silicon Valley, those tax credits as they’re not profitable. Instead, a solar company must essentially trade the tax credits to a firm that can use them in exchange for cash to finance construction.

So investors form something called a tax equity partnership, in which they agree to finance, say, a solar power plant in exchange for the tax credits generated by the project. The problem, according Tim Howell, managing director of renewable energy for GE (GE) Energy Financial Services, is that investors’ appetite for tax equity partnerships has taken a nose dive just as the market will be flooded with solar tax credits from a growing number of projects currently being licensed. For instance, he said, 1,000 megawatts of solar projects would generate $1.5 billion in tax credits.

That means there has to be enough investment dollars – or “capacity” in Wall Street lingo – available to buy those tax credits from the solar power companies.  “Competition for tax capacity, which is a scarce resource in tough financial times, is a problem we have to solve,” Howell told a packed ballroom in San Diego.

John Eber, managing director of JPMorgan Capital (JPM), flashed a PowerPoint that showed the total value of the tax equity market at $15 billion last year with 40% going to renewable energy projects, mainly wind. Now that investment banks-which put together the partnerships and sometimes invested their own capital-are all but an extinct species on Wall Street, only an estimated $875 million will be available for all solar projects in 2008. In contrast, he noted, just the solar power plant projects already announced  would need between $6 billion and $8.5 billion in tax equity funding.

“Tax equity is becoming increasingly hard to raise for renewable energy projects,” said Keith Martin, a project finance attorney at the Washington firm Chadbourne & Parke. “Several large institutional investors who put money into renewable energy deals in the last three years have dropped out of the market.”

That, they said, means untried technologies from startups will face higher hurdles to attract investors.

In conversations Green Wombat has had with solar power plant executives over the past couple of weeks, they acknowledge that financing will be much harder to come by but they’re hardly ready to throw in the towel.

“There’s probably a gigawatt of press releases and 200 megawatt of plants that acutally will go live in 2010,” says John Woolard, CEO of Oakland-based BrightSource Energy, which has a contract with PG&E to deliver up to 900 megawatts of electricity.

His point: Despite gigawatts of signed utility deals, only a few power plants will actually be built in the next couple of years when financing is expected to be the toughest to obtain. “In 2011, it’s reasonable that 500 to 600 megawatts could happen,” he says. “Those aren’t big numbers for the tax equity market, but if you believe everything that’s been announced is going to be built, then it is a big market.”

California utilities, however, are counting on that big market to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 with a 33% target for 2020. PG&E (PCG), for instance, has signed 20-year power purchase agreements for more than 2.5 gigawatts of solar electricity.

When Congress extended the solar investment tax credit it also lifted a ban on utilities claiming the tax subsidy. Hence PG&E chief Peter Darbee’s statement Thursday that his utility would be willing to make sure its projects get funded by using the company’s considerable capital clout.

“We certainly could look at potentially funding or investing in renewable projects,” PG&E senior vice president Greg Pruett told Green Wombat Thursday. While he said PG&E has no specific projects in mind, it might consider financing construction of solar power plants through a tax equity partnership or a direct investment.

“Say we have a solar thermal company and they have a proven technology and they have done a demonstration plant, but because of the markets they can’t get financing,” says Pruett. “We might consider investing so they can build the plant and get it online.”

He says it’s less likely that PG&E would get into the solar construction business itself.

While it’s anyone’s guess how the markets will shake out by the time solar companies start making the rounds in New York, it’s clear that a shakeup in the nascent solar power plant business is in the offing.

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