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Archive for the ‘endangered species’ Category

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photo: Alan Horsup, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service

In the ultimate in green corporate branding, Swiss mining conglomerate Xstrata is spending millions of dollars to save one of the world’s most imperiled large mammals, Australia’s northern hairy-nosed wombat. It’s the first time a corporation has agreed to finance the recovery of an endangered species, and in return Xstrata gets its name on everything from wombat websites to educational DVDs to the shirts worn by wildlife workers. Not to mention lots of green goodwill.

My story on Xstrata and the northern hairy-nosed wombat appears in the March 23 issue of Time Magazine. (See “Wombat Love” and the accompanying photo gallery.)

Only about 115 northern hairy-nosed wombats — a nocturnal, bearlike burrowing marsupial — survive in a single colony at Epping Forest National Park in a remote part of Queensland. The Xstrata money is paying for the creation of a second colony some 700 kilometers away as an insurance policy against a calamity at Epping that could wipe out the species.

I’ve been following the efforts of a small band of dedicated wildlife officials, led by conservation officer Alan Horsup, to save the northern hairy-nosed for the past couple of years. I have been privileged on a few occasions to encounter the extremely reclusive critter, which has rarely even been photographed. (Warren Clarke, who took the photos for my Time Magazine story, captured some of the best shots of the northern hairy-nose ever taken.)

Below is a video I shot of a wombat grazing during my most recent visit to Epping in January. It’s not the best quality but is notable for the fact that once we spotted the wombat it did not disappear down a burrow but let us get an extended glimpse of its behavior.

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topaz-solar-farm-app

In the green stimulus sweepstakes, big potential winners are companies like Silicon Valley startup OptiSolar.

The solar-cell maker came out of nowhere last year to score a deal with utility PG&E to build the world’s largest photovolaic power plant, a 550-megawatt monster that would cover some 9 1/2 square miles on California’s central coast. OptiSolar subsequently began construction of a factory in Sacramento to produce the thousands of thin-film solar panels needed for the project. Then the economy tanked and as financing dried up, OptiSolar laid off half its workforce – some 300 employees – and halted construction of the Sacramento facility.

With a Colorado solar company executive joining President Barack Obama as he signed the $787 billion stimulus legislation into law Tuesday at a solar-powered museum in Denver, OptiSolar and other renewable energy companies stalled by the financial crisis may see their fortunes revive. The package allows builders of big renewable energy projects to apply for a government cash grant to cover 30% of construction costs in lieu of claiming a 30% investment tax credit. A dearth of investors who finance solar power plants and wind farms in exchange for the tax credits has put in jeopardy green energy projects planned for the desert Southwest and the Great Plains. The cash grant would shave about $300 million off the projected $1 billion price tag for OptiSolar’s Topaz Solar Farm.

The stimulus package also includes $2.3 billion to fund a 30% manufacturing tax credit for equipment used to make components for green energy projects, a provision OptiSolar can tap to help finance its solar cell factories. And the company may be able to take advantage of the legislation’s government loan guarantees for large renewable energy projects.

“It will lower the cost of the factory we’re building in Sacramento and make it easier to attract financing,” OptiSolar spokesman Alan Bernheimer told Green Wombat, noting the company’s priority is to complete the facility and begin production of solar panels. “The factory is more than shovel ready – our shovels are hanging on the wall where we put them when we had stop work in November.” (OptiSolar currently manufactures solar modules at its Hayward, Calif., plant.)

Fred Morse, senior adviser to Spanish solar energy giant Abengoa, says the stimulus package puts back on track a $1 billion, 280-megawatt solar thermal power plant the company will build outside Phoenix to produce electricity for utility Arizona Public Service. “With the stimulus bill we’re very confident we’ll be able to finance the project,” says Morse. He says Abengoa expects to use the government loan guarantees to obtain debt financing to fund construction of the project and then apply for the 30% cash refund. “I think the entire industry is very optimistic that these two aspects of the stimulus package, the grants and the temporary loan guarantees, should allow a lot of projects to be built.”

Mark McLanahan, senior vice president of corporate development for MMA Renewable Ventures, agrees. “I expect the government grants to attract new investors,” says McLanahan, whose San Francisco firm finances and owns commercial and utility-scale solar projects.

There are some strings attached, though.

To qualify for the cash grants, developers need to start shoveling dirt by Dec. 31, 2010. That means only a handful of big solar thermal power plants planned for California, for instance, are likely to make it through a complicated two-year licensing process in time to break ground by the deadline. One of those could be the first phase of BrightSource Energy’s 400-megawatt Ivanpah power plant on the California-Nevada border. But BrightSource’s biggest projects, part of a 1,300 megawatt deal signed with Southern California Edison (EIX) last week, won’t start coming online until 2013 at the earliest.

Another Big Solar project, Stirling Energy Systems’ 750-megawatt solar dish farm for San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE), will be racing to meet the 2010 deadline. The project is in the middle of a long environmental review by the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management which currently is scheduled to stretch into 2010.

SolarReserve CEO Terry Murphy says his Santa Monica-based startup has a couple of solar power plant projects in the works that should be able to take advantage of the stimulus provisions. “The likelihood of us being able to close on a financial deal has increased,” Murphy says.

Solar analyst Nathan Bullard of research firm New Energy Finance expects the stimulus package to prompt a push for large photovoltaic power projects. That’s because in California such solar farms – which essentially take rooftop solar panels and mount them in huge arrays on the ground – do not need approval from the California Energy Commission and can be built relatively quickly.

That’s good news for companies like thin-film solar cell maker First Solar (FSLR), which builds smaller scale photovoltaic power plants, and SunPower (SPWRA), which has a long-term contract with PG&E (PCG) for the electricity generated from a planned 250-megawatt PV solar farm to be built near OptiSolar’s project.

“It’s great for PV because you can definitely can get construction done by the end of 2010,” says Bullard. “It’s also good news for smaller and mid-sized developers who couldn’t access tax-equity financing.”

The catch, however, is that renewable energy companies still must raise money from investors in a credit-crunched market to cover construction costs, as the government doesn’t pay out the cash until 60 days after a solar power plant or wind farm goes online. And as McLanahan points out, the cost of raising capital from private equity investors is typically higher and will add to the cost of renewable energy projects. Those costs will only rise if the government is late in paying out refunds.

MMA Renewable finances large commercial arrays and solar power plants and then sells the electricity under long-term contracts to customers who host the solar systems. The loan guarantee provision of the stimulus legislation will help secure financing from investors skittish that some of MMA Renewable’s customers may default on their agreements, according to McLanahan.

Says Murphy: “The fact that we’re getting iron into the ground and getting things moving helps us.”

The wind industry also stands to gain from the stimulus package through a three-year extension of the production tax credit for generating renewable electricity as well as the government cash grants and manufacturing tax credit. Despite a record year for wind farm construction in 2008, projects have come to a standstill in recent months as the financial crisis froze development and forced the European-dominated industry to lay off workers.

“I think it’s good down payment on what needs to happen,” says Doug Pertz, CEO of Clipper Windpower, one of two U.S. wind turbine makers. “A lot more needs to be done but I think this will start to bring a lot of people back into the marketplace.”

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Over the weekend The New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald had a sobering story on the not-inconsiderable challenges facing efforts to expand and upgrade the United States’ power grid to tap renewable energy from wind farms and solar power plants. Among them: Opposition to new high-voltage power lines from landowners and environmentalists, a Byzantine permitting process and fights over who pays the costs of transmission projects that span state lines.

Here in California, the ongoing controversy over the Sunrise Powerlink project is a case study in just how difficult it will be to build the infrastructure to transmit electricity from dozens of solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert. Among the big companies looking to cash in on the solar land rush: Goldman Sachs (GS), Chevron (CVX) and FPL (FPL)

Utility San Diego Gas & Electric first proposed the $1.3 billion, 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink in 2005 to connect the coastal metropolis with remote solar power stations and wind farms in eastern San Diego County and the Imperial Valley. For instance, SDG&E’s contract to buy up to 900 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems is dependent on the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink. Like California’s other big investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – SDG&E, a unit of energy giant Sempra (SRE), is racing the clock to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020.

But Sunrise sparked opposition from the get-go as the utility proposed routing part of the transmission project through a pristine wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  The prospect of 150-foot-tall transmission towers marching through critical habitat for desert tortoises and other protected wildlife galvanized environmentalists well-versed in the arcane arts of regulatory warfare.

Opponents also painted the project as a Trojan horse to bring in cheap coal-fired power from Mexico. (Wald makes a similar point in his Times‘ piece – the same high-voltage lines designed to transmit green electricity from wind farms can also be used to send cheap carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity across the country.) That argument subsequently lost currency when regulators, citing California’s landmark global warming law, barred utilities from signing long-term contracts for out-of-state coal power.

After more than three years of hearings and procedural skirmishes culminating in an 11,000-page environmental impact report, a PUC administrative law judge last October issued a 265-page decision all but killing the project on environmental grounds. Whether SDG&E thought that green energy and climate change concerns would trump worries over wildlife and wilderness, it was clear that trying to build an industrial project through a state park was a costly mistake.

Then in December, after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of renewable energy projects, the utilities commission’s board revived Sunrise Powerlink, approving a different route for the transmission lines that avoids Anza-Borrego.

But the fight is far from over. With the cost of the project now approaching $2 billion, late last month the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, filed a suit in the California Supreme Court challenging the utilties commission’s approval of Sunrise Powerlink.

Safe to say, the battle will drag on for some time to come, giving new meaning to the term “stranded assets” for some would-be Big Solar developers.

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photo: California Governor’s Office

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger on Monday terminated talk that the recession will crimp California’s fight against global warming when he ordered every utility in the state to obtain a third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. And in a move that will shake up the land rush to build solar power plants in the desert, Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of such projects.

“One of the great things about California, of course, is that we always push the envelope,” said Schwarzenegger at startup OptiSolar’s solar cell factory in Sacramento, surrounded by a triptych of solar panels, utility executives and environmentalists. “That is why today I’m proposing that we set our sights even higher. This will be the most aggressive target in the nation.”

California currently requires the state’s Big Three investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – to secure 20% of their electricity from green energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal by 2010. Monday’s move turns what had been a 33% renewables goal into a mandate and extends responsibility for meeting it to every electricity retailer in California.

Utilities, however, have struggled to reach even the 20% target as renewable energy projects become bogged down in California’s extensive environmental review and licensing process that involves a host of state and federal agencies.

Many proposed massive megawatt solar power plants will be built on environmentally sensitive land in the Mojave and Colorado deserts in California, threatening to trigger years-long battles over endangered species and water.

Take, for instance, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, 400-megawatt solar thermal power plant  to be built by Bay Area startup BrightSource Energy on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property. BrightSource, which has a 20-year contract to sell the power plant’s electricity to PG&E, is dealing with the California Energy Commission, the California Department of Fish and Game, the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the agencies that control access to the transmission grid.

Then there’s environmental fights over extending power lines to connect such projects to coastal metropolises. Late last month, state regulators rejected San Diego Gas & Electric’s plan to build $1.3 billion transmission line called the Sunrise Powerlink due to the environmental impact of routing it through sensitive desert lands.  A final decision on the project to bring green energy from the Imperial Valley to coastal metropolises will be made next month.

Schwarzenegger’s executive order requires various state agencies to collaborate to create a one-stop shopping permit process to cut in half the time it takes to license a renewable energy project – which now can be a two-year slog. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and BLM also agreed to participate in a Renewable Energy Action Team to expedite the licensing of solar power plants and other green energy projects.

“We will streamline the permitting process and the siting of new plants and transmission lines,” Schwarzenegger said. “We will complete the environmental work up front, dramatically reducing the time and the uncertainty normally associated with any of those projects.”

By March 1, the action team will identify and prioritize those areas of the desert that should be developed first for renewable energy projects based on environmental impacts and access to transmission. The group will also work with another task force that is identifying where power lines should be extended into the desert.

That will affect the fortunes of dozens of solar startups, financiers and speculators — everyone from Goldman Sachs (GS) to Chevron (CVX) — that have filed lease claims on nearly a million areas of desert land that the BLM is opening up for solar power plants. Those with land claims in areas at the top of the list for renewable energy development will find it easier to obtain financing – currently in short supply – to build billion-dollar projects. Those at the bottom of the list may rue the six-figure application fees they paid to stake claims on thousands of acres of desert land.

Behind the optimistic talk and smiles at Monday’s press conference, utility execs and environmentalists who praised the governor’s latest green initiative also signaled that political fights over how to achieve the state’ ambitious renewable energy goals are not over.

“Transmission is absolutely critical to get those renewables from the Imperial Valley,” San Diego Gas & Electric CEO Deborah Reed told the audience. “Assuming a positive decision on Sunrise Powerlink next month, we’ll get to 33% by 2020.”

But when the Nature Conservancy’s Rebecca Shaw took the microphone, she offered a cautionary note. “In our urgency to create a more sustainable future, we must be careful not to destroy the very environment that we are trying to protect,” said Shaw, associate state director for the environmental group.

California’s aggressive renewable energy policies already have had one desired consequence: spurring the creation of green collar jobs. OptiSolar, which earlier this year signed a long-term contract to supply PG&E with 550 megawatts of electricity from a massive photovoltaic solar farm, employs 500 people at its Bay Area headquarters and factory. CEO Randy Goldstein said his company will hire another 1,000 for its new Sacramento factory.

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photo: Todd Woody

Green Wombat’s story in the new issue of Fortune magazine on the solar power plant-fueled boom in demand for wildlife biologists is now online here. The photo above of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard was taken at a state reserve in San Luis Obispo County.

Or you can read the story below.

The hottest tech job in America

Giant solar plants are being built where dozens of protected species live. That’s good news for wildlife biologists.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — It looks like a scene from an old episode of The X-Files: As a red-tailed hawk circles overhead and a wild pronghorn sheep grazes in the distance, a dozen people in dark sunglasses move methodically through a vast field of golden barley, eyes fixed to the ground, GPS devices in hand. They’re searching for bodies.

In this case, however, the bodies belong to the endangered blunt-nosed leopard lizard, and the crew moving through the knee-high grain are wildlife biologists hired by Ausra, a Silicon Valley startup that’s building a solar power plant for utility PG&E on this square mile of central California ranchland.

With scores of solar power stations planned for sites in the Southwest, demand for wildlife biologists is hot. They’re needed to look for lizards and other threatened fauna and flora, to draw up habitat-protection plans, and to comply with endangered-species laws to ensure that a desert tortoise or a kit fox won’t be inadvertently squashed by a solar array.

That has engineering giants like URS (URS, Fortune 500) in San Francisco and CH2MHill of Englewood, Colo., scrambling to hire biologists to serve their burgeoning roster of solar clients. “It’s a good time to be a biologist – it’s never been busier in my 15 years in the business,” says Angela Leiba, a senior project manager for URS, which is staffing the $550 million Ausra project. URS has brought onboard 40 biologists since 2007 to keep up with the solar boom. Salaries in the industry, which typically start around $30,000 and run up to about $120,000, have spiked 15% to 20% over the past year.

The work is labor-intensive. “It can take a 30- to 50-person team several weeks to complete just one wildlife survey,” says CH2MHill VP David Stein.

The economics of Big Solar ensure that wildlife biology will be a growth field for years to come. For one thing, there’s the mind-boggling scale of solar power plants. Adjacent to the Ausra project in San Luis Obispo County, for instance, OptiSolar of Hayward, Calif., is building a solar farm for PG&E that will cover 9 1/2 square miles with solar panels. Nearby, SunPower of San Jose will do the same on 3.4 square miles. Every acre must be scoured for signs of “species of special concern” during each phase of each project.

That adds up to a lot of bodies on the ground. URS, for instance, has dispatched 75 biologists to Southern California where Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix is planting 12,000 solar dishes in the desert. “The biologists are critical to move these projects forward,” notes Stirling COO Bruce Osborn. For one project Stirling had to pay for two years’ worth of wildlife surveys before satisfying regulators.

Just about every solar site is classified as potential habitat for a host of protected species whose homes could be destroyed by a gargantuan power station. (Developers of California solar power plants, for example, have been ordered to capture and move desert tortoises out of harm’s way.) The only way to determine if a site is crawling with critters is to conduct surveys.

While that means a lot of jobs for wildlife biologists, it’s not all red-tailed hawks and pronghorn sheep for these nature boys and girls. The work can get a bit Groundhog Dayish, say, after spending 1,400 hours plodding through the same barley field in 90-degree heat in search of the same blunt-nosed leopard lizard. No wonder then when URS crew boss Theresa Miller asks for volunteers to reconnoiter a decrepit farmhouse for some protected bats on the Ausra site, hands shoot up like schoolchildren offered the chance to take the attendance to the principal’s office.

PG&E (PCG, Fortune 500) renewable-energy executive Hal La Flash worries that universities aren’t cranking out enough workers of all stripes for the green economy. “It could really slow down some of these big solar projects,” he says. Osborn can vouch for that: Biological work on the Stirling project has ground to a halt at times while the company waits for its consultants to finish up surveys on competitors’ sites.

For the young graduate, veteran biologist Thomas Egan wants to say just three words to you: Mohave ground squirrel. The rare desert dweller is so elusive that the only way to detect it on a solar site is to set traps and bag it. “There’s a limited number of people authorized to do trapping for Mohave ground squirrels,” says Egan, a senior ecologist with AMEC Earth & Environmental. “If you can work with the Mohave ground squirrel, demand is intense.”

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photo: David Lena

In a move that could alter the economics of the global solar industry, California utility PG&E on Thursday announced that it will buy 800 megawatts of electricity produced from two massive photovoltaic power plants to be built in San Luis Obsipo County on the state’s central coast. The 550-megawatt thin-film plant from Bay Area startup OptiSolar and a 250-megawatt PV plant from Silicon Valley’s SunPower dwarf by orders of magnitude the five-to-15 megawatt photovoltaic power stations currently in operation around the world.

Most of the industrial-scale solar plants designed to replace fossil-fuel power use solar thermal technology, meaning they deploy mirrors to heat liquids to produce steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Photovoltaic power plants essentially take the solar panels found on suburban rooftops and put them on the ground in gigantic arrays. How gigantic? OptiSolar’s Topaz Solar Farm will cover 9 1/2 square miles of ranch land with thin-film panels like the ones in the photo above. Combined, the two solar plants would produce enough electricity to power 239,000 California households, according to PG&E (PCG).

“Obviously this is huge and a bold move,” says Reese Tisdale, a senior analyst who studies the economics of solar power for Emerging Energy Research in Cambridge, Mass. “It’s a pretty big jump in manufacturing capacity and a big opportunity for the PV industry, particularly for thin-film.”

If the power plants are ultimately built – and that’s a big if, given the challenges to get such facilities online – and other utilities follow PG&E’s lead, demand for solar modules could skyrocket. (Thin-film cells like those made by OptiSolar are deposited or printed in layers on glass or flexible metals. They are less efficient at converting sunlight into electricity than standard solar modules but they use far less expensive polysilicon and can be produced much more cheaply.)

First Solar (FSLR), a leading thin-film maker, has an annual manufacturing capacity of around 275 megawatts – which will rise to a gigawatt by the end of 2009. (First Solar is building two small-scale solar power plants for Southern California Edison (EIX) and Sempra (SRE).) SunPower (SPWR) is expected to produce 250 megawatts worth of solar modules this year; its California Valley Solar Ranch project for PG&E alone will be consume 250 megawatts.

“If we were trying to do it this year, it would be all of our production,” says Julie Blunden, SunPower’s vice president for public policy. “SunPower is ramping very quickly. By 2010 our production will be at least 650 megawatts.” SunPower’s solar power plant is set to begin producing electricity in 2010.

The PG&E deal puts OptiSolar in the spotlight. Founded by veterans of the Canadian oil sands industry, the stealth Hayward, Calif., startup has kept its operations under cover, avoiding the media as it quietly set up a manufacturing plant in the East Bay and prepared to break ground on a million-square-foot factory in Sacramento.

OptiSolar CEO Randy Goldstein told Green Wombat that the company will have no problem producing enough solar cells to build Topaz, which is scheduled to go online in 2011, as well as fulfill contracts for some 20 small-scale power plants in Canada.

“Our plan has always been to produce solar energy on a very large scale to make it cost-competitive, even in a market like California,” Goldstein says.

The terms of utility power purchase agreements like the ones OptiSolar and SunPower have signed with PG&E are closely held secrets, but it has long been an open secret that building massive photovoltaic power plants was not economically viable. Last year when I attended the opening of an 11-megawatt PV power station in Portugal – which offers generous solar subsidies – that was built by SunPower’s PowerLight subsidiary, PowerLight’s CEO told me that pursuing such projects in the U.S. was not an attractive proposition due to market incentives and public policy.

So what has changed too make constructing gargantuan PV power plants profitable?

“Lots of things have changed,” says SunPower’s Blunden. “Power prices are going up and public policy is requiring utilities to have a portfolio of renewables.”  And after building some 40 megawatts of power plants in Spain, SunPower has been able to improve its manufacturing processes and cut costs, according to Blunden.  “We could see where the cost reductions were coming down and the benefits of scale,” she says. “We saw there was a way for us to be competitive with other renewables.”

Goldstein says OptiSolar’s business model of owning the supply chain – from building its own machines to make solar cells to constructing, owning and operating power plants – will allow it to reduce costs. “By taking control of the value chain from start to finish, by being vertically integrated and cutting out the middleman,” he says, “we can be competitive not only with other renewable energy but with conventional energy.”

Photovoltaic power plants do have certain advantages over their solar thermal cousins. They don’t need to be built in the desert, thus avoiding the land rush now underway in the Mojave. PV is a solid-state technology and with no moving parts – other than the sun tracking devices used in some plants – they make little noise and are relatively unobtrusive. Most importantly in drought-stricken California, they consume minimal water. And the modular nature of solar panels means that a power plant can start producing electricity in stages rather after the entire facility has been constructed.

“The economies of scale does make PV cost competitive with other renewable energy generating technologies, and wouldn’t be possible without advances that SunPower and OptiSolar have been working on,” says PG&E spokeswoman Jennifer Zerwer. “We take a stringent look at all technologies and we’re not wedded to a particular one.”

With the PV plants, PG&E now has contracts to obtain 24 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.

But contracts are no guarantee the even a watt will be generated. The Topaz and California Valley projects must overcome a number of obstacles, not the least of which is the U.S. Congress’ failure so far to extend a crucial 30 percent investment tax credit for solar projects that expires at the end of the year. SunPower’s Blunden acknowledges the PG&E project is contingent on the tax credit being renewed.

PG&E executive Fong Wan said as much at a press conference Thursday afternoon: “That is a major hurdle. If the investment tax credit is not extended, I expect many of our projects will be delayed.”

Then there’s the question of how welcoming rural San Luis Obispo County residents will be to two massive solar power plants in the neighborhood. Along with a 177-megawatt solar thermal power plant being built by Silicon Valley startup Ausra for PG&E adjacent to the Topaz project, the county has become a solar hot spot. Ausra has run into some community opposition and state officials are growing concerned about the impact of the power plants on protected wildlife.

“The challenge is going to be the magnitude of these projects,” says Tisdale, the energy analyst. “Other projects are already facing opposition from the environmentalists.”

But for solar power companies like OptiSolar the impetus is to get big and get big fast. “I think it’s going to demonstrate that photovoltaics have the ability to be part of the energy mix,” says Goldstein of Topaz. “We can scale up and have a big impact. There’s not going to be a lot of room for niche players in the long run.”

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For those readers who missed Green Wombat’s feature story on the solar land rush in the July 21 issue of Fortune – available here at Fortune.com – I reprint below.

The Southwest desert’s real estate boom

From California to Arizona, demand for sites for solar power projects has ignited a land grab.

By Todd Woody, senior editor

(Fortune Magazine) — Doug Buchanan grins with relief when he sees the carcasses. He has just driven up a steep dirt road onto a vast, sunbaked mesa overlooking the Mojave Desert in western Nevada. There, a few feet from the trail, lie the corpses of two steers. A raven perches on one, the only object more than three feet above the ground on this pancake-flat plateau. Cattle, dead or alive, qualify as good news in Buchanan’s line of work. If cattle are present, that means grazing is permitted, and that in turn means that this land is most likely not protected habitat for the desert tortoise.

Buchanan, 53, is scouting sites for a solar power company called BrightSource Energy, an Oakland-based startup backed by Google and Morgan Stanley. The blunt, fifth-generation Californian, who used to survey the same area for natural-gas power sites, knows that the presence of an endangered species such as the tortoise could derail BrightSource’s plans to build a multibillion-dollar solar energy plant on the mesa.

BrightSource badly wants these 20 square miles of federal land on what is called Mormon Mesa. The company was in such a hurry to stake its claim with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management that it applied for a lease sight unseen. That’s an expensive gamble for a startup, given that application fees alone run in the six figures. “I usually like to go out and kick the tires before filing a claim,” Buchanan says, “but there’s a lot of competitive pressure these days to move fast.”

That’s putting it mildly. A solar land rush is rolling across the desert Southwest. Goldman Sachs, utilities PG&E and FPL, Silicon Valley startups, Israeli and German solar firms, Chevron, speculators – all are scrambling to lock up hundreds of thousands of acres of long-worthless land now coveted as sites for solar power plants.

The race has barely begun – finished plants are years away – but it’s blazing fastest in the Mojave, where the federal government controls immense stretches of some of the world’s best solar real estate right next to the nation’s biggest electricity markets. Just 20 months ago only five applications for solar sites had been filed with the BLM in the California Mojave. Today 104 claims have been received for nearly a million acres of land, representing a theoretical 60 gigawatts of electricity. (The entire state of California currently consumes 33 gigawatts annually.)

It’s not just a federal-land grab either. Buyers are also vying for private property. Some are paying upwards of $10,000 an acre for desert dirt that a few years ago would have sold for $500.

No doubt the prospect of potential riches is overheating expectations. But California and surrounding states have mandated massive increases in renewable energy in the next few years. That has led some experts at Emerging Energy Research of Cambridge, Mass., to predict that Big Solar could be a $45 billion market by 2020.

Meanwhile, the land rush is setting the stage for a showdown between solar investors and those who want to protect a fragile environment that is home to the desert tortoise and other rare critters. The Southwest is on the cusp of what could be a green revolution. And the biggest obstacle of all may be … environmentalists.

***

Over the past year a parade of executives bearing land claims have made the trek to a stucco BLM office just off the interstate in the dusty city of Needles, Calif., a 110-mile drive south from Las Vegas. (It’s the town where the late “Peanuts” cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz, briefly lived as a boy; in the comic strip, Snoopy’s brother Spike is a resident.) The Bush administration has instructed the BLM to facilitate renewable-energy projects (along with nonrenewable ones). But Sterling White, the BLM’s earnest Needles field manager, is also concerned about what could happen if they transform the Mojave into a collection of giant power stations. “One of our biggest challenges is the cumulative impact of these projects,” he says.

Nearly 80% of the land that White’s office oversees is federally protected wilderness or endangered-species habitat. That leaves about 700,000 acres for solar power plants, only some of which are near transmission lines. Land leases are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis, but White is also supposed to weed out speculators from genuine solar developers based on loose criteria such as who is negotiating with utilities and who is applying for state power licenses. White has yet to approve a single lease, but he has summarily rejected four because they lie in protected-species habitat.

***

Solar prospectors tend to be as secretive about their land as forty-niners were about the veins of gold they discovered. Most bids are placed by limited-liability corporations with opaque names that conceal their ownership. And no one has been as quick to move into the Mojave – or as tightlipped about it – as Solar Investments.

That entity, it turns out, is Goldman Sachs’s solar subsidiary. The investment bank’s designs on the desert are a topic of intense interest and speculation. Goldman declined to comment. But here’s what we know:

Solar Investments filed its first land claim in December 2006 and within a month had applied for more than 125,000 acres for power plants that would produce ten gigawatts of electricity. Many of the sites lie close to the transmission lines that connect the desert to coastal cities. (Goldman has also staked claims on 40,000 acres of the Nevada desert.)

Nobody expects Goldman to begin operating solar plants. It will probably either partner with another developer or sell its limited-liability company (and its leases) outright. The firm has been making the rounds of solar developers. “The conversation’s been pretty wide-ranging, primarily as an investor interested in financing deals,” says one solar energy executive approached by Goldman. “But there’s clearly an element of interest in our technology.” Goldman has requested permission to install meteorological equipment on its sites and is evaluating “competing technologies, including solar dish systems, power towers, and large-scale photovoltaic arrays,” according to a letter Goldman sent to the BLM in August 2007.

Competitors are lining up behind Goldman, staking claims on some of the same sites in hopes the bank will abandon them. PG&E and FPL, for instance, are in the queue after Goldman on one site. Solel, an Israeli solar company that last year scored a contract to deliver 553 megawatts to PG&E, is third in line behind Goldman on another.

“I view Goldman as a very interesting indicator of things to come,” says Brian McDonald, PG&E’s director of renewable-resource development. “They’re usually ahead of the curve – you can extract a huge amount of value if you get in early.” There’s other smart money here too. A Palo Alto startup called Ausra received $40 million from the elite green venture capitalists Vinod Khosla and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Ausra has signed a deal with PG&E and announced its intention to construct a gigawatt’s worth of projects a year.

Most of the power production contemplated for the Mojave will rely on solar thermal technology – the common approach in large-scale generation projects – in which arrays of mirrors heat liquids to produce steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. But a secretive Hayward, Calif., startup called OptiSolar has filed claims on 105,300 acres to build nine gigawatts’ worth of photovoltaic power plants, which employ solar panels similar to those found on residential rooftops. (The company also has applied for leases on 21,800 acres in Arizona and Nevada.) To put those ambitions in context, the biggest photovoltaic power plant operating today produces 15 megawatts. Says OptiSolar executive vice president Phil Rettger: “We have a proprietary technology and a business approach that we’re convinced will let us deploy PV at large scale and be competitive with other forms of renewable energy.”

***

With the prime BLM sites quickly being snapped up – recently the agency temporarily stopped accepting new land claims while it develops a desertwide solar policy – competition is growing for private land. Here, too, the emphasis on secrecy borders on the obsessive. A request to view a piece of desert that is up for sale is treated as if I had asked to visit Area 51.

Waiting outside a roadside diner in southwestern Arizona – I’ve promised not to say where – with BrightSource senior vice president Tom Doyle, I expect to see a weather-beaten farmer come chugging up in a battered pickup. Instead, a pale-green Volvo SUV driven by a physician glides into the parking lot. The doctor, who wishes to remain anonymous, acquired the land two years ago as the renewable-energy boom got underway. “We thought we’d put solar on it – that’s the reason we bought it,” the doctor says as we pile into the Volvo and head into the desert to visit the site. After about five miles we turn off the road and come to a stop in a rocky patch of desert framed by low-slung mountains and buttes. Doyle quizzes the physician about water rights, endangered species, and access to transmission lines before moving out of earshot to talk dollars. The whole process takes only about 20 minutes – the two sides ultimately decide not to do a deal – and then Doyle is on to visit the next potential property.

Such is the land frenzy that farmers in Arizona were paid $45 million for 1,920 acres by Spanish solar company Abengoa so that it could build a 280-megawatt power plant; the land had an assessed value of a few hundred thousand dollars. The company also plunked down $30 million for 3,000 acres in the California Mojave that had traded hands for $1.25 million nine years earlier. That prompted developer Scott Martin to put his adjacent 300-acre parcel – land he had bought only a few months earlier for $457,500 – on the market for $3 million. Also for sale: a $15 million, 3,000-acre tract near Palm Springs, which Martin began shopping around to solar executives like Ausra’s Perry Fontana. When I join Fontana to check out the site, a onetime World War II air base outside the Mojave ghost town of Rice, he says, “I probably get three calls a day from brokers or landowners.” As if on cue, his Bluetooth earpiece lights up with a cold call from a broker peddling some land near Needles.

***

Green energy is not about to get a green light from all environmentalists. “We’re going to challenge these big solar projects, and there’s going to be tremendous environmental battles,” says veteran California activist Phil Klasky, a member of several green groups who helped lead a campaign in the 1990s that scuttled a radioactive-waste dump planned in tortoise territory in the Mojave. “Large solar arrays will have an impact on surrounding critical habitat for the desert tortoise and other threatened species. We have to fight global warming, but just because it’s solar doesn’t make it right.”

The developers are worried about resistance. “I remember the spotted owl,” says Fred Morse, a former Department of Energy official who is a senior advisor to Abengoa’s U.S. operations. The widespread logging of ancient forests, home to the northern spotted owl, set off epic environmental fights in the 1980s and ’90s. As Morse puts it, “The Mohave ground squirrel or the desert tortoise – any one of them could become a cause.”

Solar energy companies may make for less tempting targets than timber barons, but development of the desert has never been attempted on such a scale. The result is that some environmentalists find themselves anguished over which side to take. “We’ve had our share of conflicts over endangered species in this state, no doubt about it,” says Kevin Hunting, a biologist and a deputy director of the California Department of Fish and Game, which enforces the state endangered-species laws. “We’re actively looking to strike that critical balance between the state’s renewable-energy goals and conserving species that are vulnerable. It’s challenging.”

California wildlife regulators, for instance, have peppered Ausra with requests for more biological surveys on the site of a 177-megawatt solar power plant to be built in San Luis Obispo County. The feds could also require Ausra to prepare a plan to protect the San Joaquin kit fox, a process that could take years and shred the project’s economic viability.

Worse for developers, state and federal law require wildlife officials to consider the total impact of multiple projects when weighing whether to approve any individual facility. Next door to Ausra’s solar farm, for example, is OptiSolar’s planned 550-megawatt power plant, which would cover 9 1/2 square miles of potential endangered-species habitat with solar panels. Will the regulators approve one? Both? Nobody knows.

In the meantime, the solar land rush is unlikely to cool down. Which is why Morse wants to keep quiet Abengoa’s $30 million real estate deal. The company is applying to build a 250-megawatt solar power plant on the site, and it may be in the market for more land. “We don’t want to publicize that purchase,” he says, “as the speculators will be coming out of the woodwork.”

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