An environmental battle over solar energy development in California's eastern Mojave Desert has prompted at least one company to abandon its project.

BrightSource Energy, which had been set on developing a 500-megawatt solar thermal power plant on part of Broadwell Dry Lake, decided to stop the project a few months ago, reported the Los Angeles Times.

The decision came after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said she would push for a legislation to turn the lake area into a national monument, a designation that would prevent any alternative energy development.

BrightSource's decision came as a relief for Wildlands Conservancy, which raised $40 million to buy some 600,000-acre property and donated to the U.S. Department of Interior for protection between 2000 and 2004, said David Myers, executive director of the Oak Glen, Calif.-based conservancy. 

Myers said it was the largest land gift to the government, and the conservancy received commendation letters from former President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and Interior Department officials.

The conservancy wanted to protect the land so that it could create a large corridor for wildlife to migrate from the nearby Joshua Tree National Monument to the Mojave National Preserve.

The group raised an additional $5 million to buy private land from around Joshua Tree and donate that piece to the federal government as well. Myers said the conservancy is the largest nonprofit landowner in California (managing 148,000 acres), and runs outdoor programs for children.

"They said this land would be protected permanently and in perpetuity," Myers said. "We are not into advocating public policy. We don't go out and sue people. This whole battle in the desert is taking a lot of our resources."

Then the Bush administration passed an energy act in 2005 that opened up federal land for solar and wind energy projects, including the piece donated by the conservancy.

The environmental group turned to Feinstein, who could introduce a bill as early as this month to designate the land as a national monument, Myers said. The national monument status would preempt any company from developing power projects, even if they had already applied for approval, Myers said.

BrightSource wasn't the only company eyeing the land for solar power projects, though it bowed out while others have remained. Those other developers include Stirling Energy Systems, Solel, Nextlight and Cogentrix Energy.

"I would like to salute [BrightSource] for making the right decision. I think it's a heads up for the industry that there are good and bad places to do renewable energy in the desert," Myers said.

When the federal government opened up the desert land for renewable energy projects, said Myers, initially there weren't any meetings between developers, environmental groups and local residents about the impact of these proposed projects. That was a mistake, he added.

The conservancy, like some other environmental organizations, favors seeing power plants being built on land that had been previously used for agriculture or other development.

BrightSource has another project in the Mojave Desert, in Ivanpah. The project calls for building three power projects totaling 400 megawatts. The company recently lined up Bechtel as its general contractor and equity investor in the project (see BrightSource Gets Big Brother in Bechtel).

BrightSource has contracts to sell the electricity from the three power plants to Southern California Edison and the Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Tags: brightsource, mojave, solar thermal, solel, stiring energy systems