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The Ivanpah solar facility in the Mojave Desert.

The huge Ivanpah solar plant is part of a push to expand renewable energy on U.S. federal land. The developer took steps to relocate a population of the endangered desert tortoise, below.

Photograph by Jim West, Alamy

A desert tortoise.

Photograph by Isaac Brekken, New York Times/Redux

Josie Garthwaite

For National Geographic

Published July 25, 2013

The Ivanpah Valley of the Mojave Desert in California is home to spiky yucca trees, long-nosed leopard lizards, loggerhead shrikes, and a rare species of tortoise—and soon, the largest solar thermal energy plant in the world.

More than six years in the making, the Ivanpah plant is now slated to begin generating power before summer's end. It was designed by BrightSource Energy to use more than 170,000 mirrors to focus sunlight onto boilers positioned atop three towers, which reach nearly 500 feet (150 meters) into the dry desert air. The reflected sunlight heats water in the boilers to make steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity—enough to power more than 140,000 homes. (See related quiz, "What You Don't Know About Solar Power.")

Scaling Up Solar

At 377 megawatts (MW), Ivanpah's capacity is more than double that of the Andusol, Solnava, or Extresol power stations in southern Spain, which previously were the largest in the world (150 MW each). (See related: "Pictures: Spanish Solar Energy.") The 1980s-era SEGS, or Solar Energy Generating System, also in the Mojave, about 100 miles southwest of Ivanpah, has a 354-MW capacity, but it is a collection of nine plants.

Viewed from above, the mirrors seem to angle their faces like enormous silvery blooms craning to the sun. At ground level, the facility stands on a 3,500-acre swath of federal land inhabited by the threatened desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). Once found across deserts of the American West, the species now inhabits parts of California, Utah, Arizona, and Nevada. But its numbers have dwindled: Scientists estimate some populations have declined by as much as 90 percent.

Although initial surveys indicated fewer than 20 desert tortoises occupied the Ivanpah project area, more than 150 individuals ended up being found. Biologists working for BrightSource cleared the area, carefully moving tortoises to "nursery pens" adjacent to the site before releasing them to nearby habitat. [See the video below for the story of the process and how they've fared.]

These slow-moving desert reptiles are able to survive a year or more without water and live for as long as 80 years, burrowing underground to keep cool and feasting on wildflowers in the spring. Yet they have proven vulnerable to encroaching human development. "Here's an animal that's been around 200 million years that may be disappearing," said Ed LaRue, a biologist with the Desert Tortoise Council, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation of the desert tortoise in the Southwestern United States and Mexico. "Solar, especially at the level that it's being proposed in the Mojave Desert, is a new threat."

BrightSource and its partners, NRG and Google, received a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee in April 2011 in support of the project. And it may be only the first of many such developments on public lands in the Golden State. Although several large-scale solar projects in California have sputtered (including two from BrightSource) and technical challenges are considerable, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced a move in early July to prioritize more than 300,000 acres of public lands in six Western states for use by utility-scale solar plants, with nearly half of that acreage in California. (See related: "Desert Storm: Battle Brews Over Obama Renewable Energy Plan.")

Acting on the heels of President Obama's recent call for federal approval of 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy projects on public lands by 2020, the BLM prohibited mining claims on the 300,000 acres for the next 20 years. (See related story: "Obama Pledges U.S. Action on Climate Change, With or Without Congress.") Some environmentalists have raised concerns about how fragile desert ecosystems will be altered in the renewable energy drive, but developers and advocates of large-scale clean power say the ultimate goal is to reduce dependence on fossil fuel that is far more harmful to both land and atmosphere. (See related story: "Monterey Shale Shakes Up California's Energy Future.")

"We're combining innovative technology with traditional power-block technology to produce carbon-free, reliable renewable power," said Joseph Desmond, senior vice president of marketing for BrightSource. (A power-block facility includes a steam heat exchanger, steam-turbine generator, and the electrical equipment in a substation.) "When you're talking about fossil fuels, you have to factor in the land used for exploration, extraction, processing, and then transportation," he said. "People sometimes forget this is actually a very efficient utilization of a sustainable energy resource." (See related pictures: "Oil Potential and Animal Habitat in the Monterey Shale.")

Ivanpah's developers also addressed concerns about the typically high consumption by solar thermal plants by deploying an air-cooling system that they say reduces water use 90 percent compared to conventional technology.  (See related story: "Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035.")

First of Many?

BrightSource's desert plant is one of the largest projects in California's ambitious push for renewable energy. (See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?") The state aims to generate 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal by 2020. Two other solar projects designed for the Ivanpah Valley are now working their way through the approval process: The proposed Stateline and Silver State South projects, both from the company First Solar, would generate 300 megawatts and 350 megawatts, respectively. Further north, a solar farm proposed for construction across 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares) of the Panoche Valley, would generate nearly 400 megawatts—if it can survive legal challenges from environmental groups and clear other hurdles, like signing on a utility to buy the electricity and obtaining federal permits.

"There's a trade-off," said Larry LaPre, a biologist with BLM. "If there were no push toward renewable energy, animals like the desert tortoise and plants like the Joshua tree could be impacted quite a bit [by climate change]." Indeed, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) cites global climate change and drought as "potentially important long-term considerations" for the desert tortoise's recovery. (See related story: "IEA Outlook: Time Running Out on Climate Change.") Rising temperatures and reduced rainfall expected to result from climate change could ravage the species' food supply. At the same time, FWS recognizes that it has not evaluated the potential long-term effects of big renewable energy projects that fragment or isolate desert tortoise conservation areas, possibly "cutting off gene flow between these areas."

And so in the Mojave, the question that divides renewable energy supporters and wildlife advocates is this: Is it a good trade? "There's so much land out here where the biological resources have been compromised," such as old agricultural land and areas on the urban fringe, said LaRue. "I think it would be a great resource if it was just put in the right place."

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This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

27 comments
james william johnson
james william johnson

I am curious about the ground temperatures under this vast array of mirrors. By their very nature they are providing Shade to all plants and animals, as well as the bacteria in the soil. Have they put the tortoises back into their former home? I am quite sure that they would enjoy that. Shade, is one answer to our energy problems. Trees make for a cooler enviroment, shade cloth preforms the exact same function as trees. Shade cloth cools the ground and conserves water by reducing heat stress on plants and animals, and the benefical bacteria thinks it cool. Yes, they do talk, and they heat stress, just like we do.

Andrew Thomason
Andrew Thomason

We installed 4kw of pv solar panels on our house in july 2012. weve just exceeded 4000kwh. who says the sun dosnt shine in england?

the governments across the world could do a lot more to encourage people like me to save/produce energy 

ANIL MANGOOL
ANIL MANGOOL

THE MOJAVE SOLAR PROJECT SHOULD BE DUPLICATED IN ALL COUNTRIES HAVING DESERTS .THIS WILL GO A LONG WAY IN REDUCING OUR DEPENDENCE ON FOSSIL FUELS MAKE THESE COUNTRIES MORE PROSPEROUS &PROTECT THE ALREADY FRAGILE ENVIORNMENT OF THIS BEAUTIFUL PLANET  

Martin Sinner
Martin Sinner

yeti-car-desing.yeti-adventure.com  perpetum mobile engine small town city car desing electric project hybrid  alternative energy

J I
J I

This is awesome, but I notice a lot of commenters indicating concern about carbon emissions in general.  I think global warming will be much less than what has been espoused by the media and some scientists.  Just look at how the observed temperatures have stayed flat the past 10-16 years in spite of all of the computer models predicting a massive increase.  Check out the satellite data from the RSS and UAH satellites, plus the various earth based data sets.

J I
J I

This is awesome, but I notice a lot of commenters indicating concern about carbon emissions in general.  I think global warming will be much less than what has been espoused by the media and some scientists.  Just look at how the observed temperatures have stayed flat the past 10-16 years in spite of all of the computer models predicting a massive increase.  Check out the satellite data from the RSS and UAH satellites, plus the various earth based data sets.

Paul Schott
Paul Schott

Albert Einstein Dream coming true the world going to Solar Energy.

ARCHIMEDES SOLAR TOWER 2,250 YEARS OLD.

Solar Energy coming from our SUN there is enough to power all the needs of the Planet Earth and then some.

ARCHIMEDES over 2,000 years ago and Albert Einstein over 100 years showed the " World This SOLAR ENERGY " and we are now just starting to see every nation and country on Earth going to SOLAR ENERGY.


GOD Bless all that help the poor and needy.


The Lord's Little Helper

Paul Felix Schott

Sid Abma
Sid Abma

If a natural gas power plant were to incorporate the technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery, and an algae company were to construct 500 acres or more of algae facilities alongside the power plant, the heat energy from the power plant's exhaust could be utilized to keep these algae growing facilities warm and fed with cooled CO2. The water recovered from the combusted natural gas would be used to make up for water losses.

These power plants can be constructed with little or no heat energy being put into the atmosphere, and little or no CO2 going into the atmosphere.

The algae that is being produced will require a lot of full time employees, growing and harvesting and processing, and when it is converted to bio fuel will help America to escape from imported oil requirements.

If America's converted coal to natural gas power plants were to be constructed this way, what is the difference between this and solar or wind electrical production?  They don't produce anything but electricity.

Michael Boyd
Michael Boyd

Title should be BrightSource Ivanpah Boondoggle goes forward with loan guarantees financing for jobs based in Israel. I know because my group CARE's members include native Americans whose sacred cultural sites and sacred tortoises have been destroyed; vandalized, molested on our public lands in violation of US laws and international conventions on human rights of indigenous peoples world wide. My organization CARE and La Cuna De Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle are co-plaintiffs to the 2010 lawsuits in Federal District Court against utility scale solar projects being built on sites containing cultural resources. See Six Utility Scale Desert Solar Projects Get Holiday Surprise Native American group: http://www.prweb.com/releases/2010/12/prweb4927484.htm Also see the documentary “WHO ARE MY PEOPLE?” at http://whoaremypeople.com/

Rajiv Panda
Rajiv Panda

Looks like that solar waste incineration plant mentioned on "Sahara" by Clive cussler..

Richard Rocky Lobo
Richard Rocky Lobo

States need to keep the  balance between the endemics and Sustainable development. Rehabilitating the tortoises to 'nursery pens' won't be enough.. their habitat should also be intact not with any anthropocentric interference.. Solar harnessing is indeed a ground breaking tech renewable source, but not at the cost of fragile Biodiversity.. I heartily appreciate the BrightSource being concerned about biodiversity. 

Lance Snider
Lance Snider

Wow, this is so exciting! Stupid question - with the mirrors so high off the ground, why not let the turtles stay?

Reda Issa
Reda Issa

WOOW Amazing project and great idea  

Carol Music
Carol Music

WOW! What a great beginning in the move to better and ecologically safer sources of power. I'm especially impressed with the company for finding and carefully relocating the desert tortoises! I was struck with the comment . . .  "Here's an animal that's been around 200 million years that may be disappearing," said Ed LaRue, a biologist . . . When you think about it, it's quite profound. 

Makes one wonder about the impact of all those oil wells on land and in the ocean have on the creatures living there. Oh, but wait, I forgot, the Oil Companies have really great lobbyists so no worries! 

I hope this is the beginning of a new way of life for all of us who need electricity!

Andrew Thomason
Andrew Thomason

@Sid Abma 

Hi Sid

 Its so frustrating that the technologies and ideas exist to make a real difference but the people who have the power to do something about it (politicians) dont have the balls to save our grand childrens world. Im afraid its up to ordinary individuals to do everything they can. If enough of us make a noise even the castratae will have to listen. Keep the faith, Andy

Bill Wright
Bill Wright

@Sid Abma Burning natural gas still produces carbon.  And wind and solar don't give enough energy.  Only nuclear power gives us all we need with no carbon emissions.

Bill Wright
Bill Wright

@Sid Abma Burning natural gas still produces carbon.  Only nuclear power gives us enough energy, with no carbon.  Solar and wind do not give enough energy.

Carsten Troelsgaard
Carsten Troelsgaard

@Sid Abma 
Yes, good idea. There will be a lack of organic nutrients though .. the excess manure from a cattle-factory could come in handy. They sure would be thrilled to get rid of the stuff -- as the rest of us that see it percolate into the soil and on to the rivers and streams.

Troy Deatherage
Troy Deatherage

@Lance Snider That is actually a very good question. It turns out that this particular species of tortoise, while long lived, industrious to the point of burying themselves to keep cool, and so hearty that they can survive extended periods with little or no water, have one instinctual trait that often proves fatal. They are extremely vain, and, when encountering their own reflection, will devote their every waking moment to primping, flexing, posing, and attempting to make duckface. This behavior was only recently discovered because they do it extremely slowly, and most biologists just thought they were standing around. While easily overcome in their natural habitat, (the Mojave desert is both arid to the point of limited pools of reflective water and absent of hair salons, clothiers, etc. where mirrors are common.) this behavior would decimate their population in such a mirror rich setting. Hope this clears things up!

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

@Bill Wright @Sid Abma Solar and wind DO provide enough power and in 2013 they do it at a cost close to atomic energy. 

Outside of the Nuc lobby and a few hipsters no one wants more atomic plants anymore/

Sean Bent
Sean Bent

@Troy Deatherage @Lance Snider

I think your making a joke but seriously you would have to be like 5 to 10 ft tall or so to see your own reflection in the mirrors, kinda like a 2 year old in the bathroom mirror, which is vertical, unlike these mirrors which are almost always at a 45 degree angle.  Those mirrors tracking the sun as it moves must look cool in a time lapse shot though.

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