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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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photos: Ausra

Silicon Valley startup Ausra fired up a five-megawatt solar power plant outside Bakersfield Thursday, the first big solar station to go online in California in nearly two decades.

Ausra has a 20-year contract with utility PG&E (PCG) for a 177-megawatt solar power plant to be built some 70 miles away on the Carrizo Plains in San Luis Obispo County. But like competitors who also aim to sell solar technology untried on a large scale, Ausra constructed the demo plant, called Kimberlina, as a proof of concept for investors who will have to be persuaded in these tight times to pony up half a billion dollars or more in project financing. “It’s important because this is the technology banks’ engineers want to see so they’re comfortable recommending financing for the Carrizo Plains site,” Ausra CEO Robert Fishman told Green Wombat.

At Kimberlina’s unveiling Thursday, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee warned against letting the financial crisis derail the fight against global warming.  “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,” he said. “PG&E stands ready to take on the challenge of financing renewables.”

While Ausra built Kimberlina to show that its compact linear fresnel reflector technology can generate utility-scale electricity, the plant is also designed to demonstrate that solar tech can be deployed for other industrial uses. At heart, a solar thermal power plant is a steam machine. In Ausra’s case, long rows of flat mirrors that sit low to the ground. concentrate sunlight on water-filled pipes that hang over the mirrors to create steam. That drives an electricity-generating turbine, but Ausra and other companies are looking to sell the steam as well.

For instance, take a drive around Bakersfield and you’d think you were in Texas, what with all the oil rigs rocking back and forth across a treeless landscape. Bakersfield oil is thick and heavy, so steam is injected into the ground to make it flow. Fishman wants oil companies to stop burning expensive natural gas to boil water and start using the sun.

“We’ve been doing a lot of show and tell,” says Fishman, referring to the Kimberlina plant, which sits just off the Bakersfield oil patch’s main highway. “If you look at putting a solar generator in, the economics look pretty good.”

Each 1,000-foot row, or line, of Ausra mirrors generates six megawatts of heat, according to Fishman, who says the company has talked to potential clients who would need anywhere between five and 50 lines.

Ausra also is exploring other markets for its steam technology, such as food processing.

Rival power plant builder eSolar, the Pasadena startup incubated by Bill Gross’ Idealab and funded in part by Google (GOOG), also sees other markets for its green tech. Last month, eSolar, which has a contact to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of electricity, licensed its technology to stealth renewable fuels startup Sundrop, based in Pojoaque, N.M., north of Santa Fe.

Sundrop CEO John Stevens will say little about the Kleiner Perkins-backed company’s plans. “Sundrop uses low-cost concentrated solar energy to drive renewable energy into fuels,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We will produce low-cost renewable fuels.  We expect to be demonstrating scale production in 2009-2010.”

eSolar CEO Asif Ansari told Green Wombat his company will provide fields of mirrors called heliostats to Sundrop along with software and control systems to concentrate the sun’s rays on a tower. (Venture Beat uncovered documents that indicates Sundrop may plan to produce hydrogen and other fuels.)

“Basically, we’re a technology company; we don’t want to be in the construction business,” says Ansari. “What we really are trying to develop here is a standard global platform for delivering concentrated solar energy to any target that can be used for a variety of applications.”

Besides using solar energy to produce such fuels as hydrogen, Ansari, like Ausra, sees the oil industry as a potential market. He says the food processing and fertilizer industries also could substitute eSolar’s technology for natural gas to make steam.

Back in Bakersfield, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger presided over the official opening of Ausra’s Kimberlina solar plant on Thursday. (Live streaming his appearance.) “California is going green and it’s going green really fast,” the governator said before an audience that included PG&E chief executive Peter Darbee and Silicon Valley venture capitalists Ray Lane and Vinod Khosla.

The solar power station is plugged into the grid and will supply PG&E with enough electricity to power about 3,500 homes in central California. The mirror arrays were made at Ausra’s robotic factory in Las Vegas.

“This represents the best of American and Australian ingenuity and get-it-done attitude,” said Fishman at the ceremony, referring to Ausra’s roots in Sydney. “People don’t need to think of Ausra as an alternative energy company. As of today it is simply an energy company.”

Schwarzenegger gave the signal and Kimberlina officially came online, the 1,000-foot-long mirror arrays rotating toward the sun.

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photo: eSolar

After months of failed attempts in Congress to extend crucial renewable energy tax credits, the end-game came with lightning speed Friday afternoon: The House of Representatives passed the green incentives attached to the financial bailout package approved by the Senate Wednesday night and President Bush promptly signed the legislation into law.

There were goodies for wind, geothermal and alternative fuels, but the big winner by far was the solar industry.

“It feels like we should be popping the champagne,” said a Silicon Valley solar exec Green Wombat met for lunch minutes after Bush put pen to paper.

That it took the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression to save billions of dollars of renewable projects in the pipeline for the sake of political expediency does not bode well for a national alternative energy policy. But the bottom line is that the legislation passed Friday sets the stage for a potential solar boom.

  • The 30% solar investment tax credit has been extended to 2016, giving solar startups, utilities and financiers the certainty they need for the years’ long slog it takes to get large-scale power plants and other projects online. The extension is particularly important to those Big Solar projects that need to arrange project financing in the next year or so.
  • The $2,000 tax credit limit for residential solar systems has been lifted, meaning that homeowners can get a 30% tax credit on the solar panels they install after Dec. 31. That will save a bundle – especially for those who live in states with generous state rebates – and goose demand for solar panel makers and installers like SunPower (SPWRA) and First Solar (FSLR). (If you buy a $24,000 3-kilowatt solar array in California – big enough to power the average home –  you can claim a $7,200 federal tax credit. Add in the state solar rebate and the cost of the system is cut in half.)
  • Utilities like PG&E (PCG), Southern California Edison (EIX) and FPL (FPL) can now themselves claim the 30% investment tax credit for large-scale solar power projects. That should encourage those well-capitalized utilities to build their own solar power plants rather than just sign power purchase agreements with startups like Ausra and BrightSource Energy.

“The brakes are off,” says Danny Kennedy, co-founder of Sungevity, a Berkeley, Calif., solar installer that uses imaging technology to remotely size and design solar arrays. “In just six months since our launch we’ve sold about a hundred systems. With an uncapped tax credit for homeowners going solar, we expect business to boom.”

While elated sound bites from solar executives have been flooding the inbox all afternoon – along with invites to celebratory after-work drinks – solar stocks took a drubbing (along with the rest of the still-spooked market) after initially soaring on the news.

SunPower ended the trading day down 5% while First Solar shares dropped 8%. The bright spot was China’s Suntech (STP), which on Thursday announced a joint venture with financier MMA Renewable Ventures to build solar power plants as well as the acquisition of California-based solar panel installer EI Solutions.

Congress didn’t treat the wind industry so generously. The production tax credit for generating renewable energy was extended by just one year, guaranteeing the industry’s will continue to live year by year (at least through 2009). But given that 30% of all new power generation built in the United States in 2007 was wind, and that the amount of wind power installed by the end of 2008 is expected to rise 60% over the record set last year, the wind biz should do just fine.

But Congress did give a break to those who buy small-scale wind turbines. Systems under 100 kilowatts qualify for a 30% tax credit up to $4,000. Homeowners get a $1,000 tax credit for each kilowatt of wind they install, though the credit is capped at $4,000.

“This is a huge breakthrough for small wind,” says Scott Weinbrandt, president of Helix Wind, a San Diego-based manufacturer of 2-and-4-kilowatt turbines.

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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.”

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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.

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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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Nearly three years ago, two Southern California utilities caused a stir when they announced deals to buy up to 1.75 gigawatts of electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems of Phoenix. The company had developed a Stirling solar dish – a 38-foot-high, 40-foot-wide mirrored structure that looks like a big shiny satellite receiver. The dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate electricity.

Plans called for as many as 70,000 solar dishes to carpet the desert. For Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) – both facing a state mandate to obtain 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010 – it was a big gamble. As the years ticked by and Stirling tinkered with its technology, competitors like Ausra, BrightSource Energy and Solel came out of stealth mode and stole the limelight, signing deals with PG&E (PCG) and filing applications with California regulators to build solar power plants. By the time I visited Stirling’s test site in New Mexico in March 2007 for a Business 2.0 feature story, industry insiders were telling me – privately, of course – that Stirling would never make it; Stirling dishes were just too complex and too expensive to compete against more traditional solar technologies.

That may or may not end up being true, but Stirling has moved to silence the naysayers by filing a license application with the California Energy Commission for its first solar power plant – the world’s largest – a 30,000-dish, 750-megawatt project to be built 100 miles east of San Diego on 6,100 acres of federal land controlled by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. (A energy commission licence application – an extremely detailed and expensive document; Stirling’s runs 2,600 pages – is considered a sign that a project has the wherewithal to move forward.)

The first phase of the SES Solar Two project will consist of 12,000 SunCatcher dishes generating 300 megawatts for San Diego Gas & Electric. While the Stirling solar dish is more complex and contains more moving parts than other solar thermal technologies – which use mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam to drive a standard electricity-generating turbine – or photovoltaic panels like those found on rooftops, it also offers some distinct advantages. For one thing, it’s the most efficient solar thermal technology, converting sunlight into electricity at a 31.25% rate.  Each 25-kilowatt dish is in fact a self-contained mini-power plant that can start generating electricity – and cash – as soon as it is installed. Stirling will build 1.5-megawatt clusters of 60 dishes that will begin paying for themselves as each pod goes online. A conventional solar thermal power plant, of course, must be completely built out – which can take a year or two depending on size – before generating electricity.

The 750-megawatt Stirling project will also use relatively little water – no small matter in the desert – compared to other solar thermal plants. According to Stirling, SES Solar Two will consume 33 acre-feet of water – to wash the dishs’ mirrors – which is equivalent to the annual water use of 33 Southern California households. In contrast, a solar power plant to be built by BrightSource Energy that is nearly half the size is projected to use 100 acre-feet of water annually while a 177-megawatt Ausra plant would use 22 acre-feet, according to the companies’ license applications.

Still, there’s some big hurdles for Stirling to overcome. While it did score a whopping $100 million in funding in April from Irish renewable energy company NTR, the company will need billions in project financing to build Solar Two. And the project’s second 450-megawatt phase is dependent on the utility completing a controversial new transmission line through the desert called the Sunrise Powerlink. Depending on how fast the project is approved, construction is expected to begin in 2009 and last more than three years.

The other big unknown is what environmental opposition may develop. Within 10 miles of the SES Solar Two site are proposals to build solar power plants on an additional 51,457 acres of BLM land. Then there are the wildlife issues. Several California-listed “species of special concern” have been found on the Stirling site, including the burrowing owl, flat-tailed horned lizard and the California horned lark.

Regardless it’s a big step forward for Stirling. As California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement, “This groundbreaking solar energy project is a perfect example of the clean renewable energy California can and will generate to meet our long-term energy and climate change goals.”

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