The MIT Club of Northern California, as part of their Energy and Clean Tech Series, brought together some solar notables in a panel discussion last week to discuss solar power growing up to utility scale. Hal La Flash, Director of Emerging Clean Technologies at utility Pacific Gas & Electric, was the moderator and one of his questions regarding utility-scale solar was, "What's taking so long?"

I'll cover that event in a separate post -- but I wanted to focus a bit on BrightSource Energy and the early stages of construction at the Ivanpah site.

BrightSource has filed their S-1 registration for the IPO and is in their quiet period. Here's a link to the S-1 form and some more details on BrightSource's recent financing activity.

But Ian Copeland, President, Renewable Power at Bechtel, the BrightSource EPC (and an Ivanpah investor) is not in a quiet period. Copeland spoke on the challenges and progress so far in the  early stages of this major construction project.

Within 20 days of receiving site access in early October, Bechtel had installed 16 miles of fence around unit one, the common area for the three units and the power block for unit two and working with BrightSource's biologists had swept every square foot of the 1,329 acre area of the 3,600 acre site as part of the rare plant and animal conservation and relocation effort.

The Ivanpah plant, slated for completion in 2013, has been the target of legal action from an environmental group despite approval of the project by both the Department of the Interior and the state of California. To mollify some objections, BrightSource scaled down the size of the project as part of the environmental mitigation process.

BrightSource has had to mitigate their environmental footprint to contend with the desert tortoise by avoiding long-term impacts to 433 acres of habitat, as well as acquiring additional land off the Ivanpah site for tortoise relocation within their home range. The 433 acres of habitat on the site and the additional mitigation land would remain available to tortoises for foraging, cover, and other life cycle requirements. While it is unknown how many tortoises would be in this area at the time of construction; three of the 20 live tortoises observed within the project boundary during the 2007 and 2008 surveys would be avoided, resulting in the need to relocate about 15 percent fewer tortoises.  At a minimum, 17 existing burrows in this area would also be preserved. Here's a link to a Biological Mitigation Document involving desert tortoises, rare plants, soil, and visual impact.

BrightSource has spent "a surprising amount of money" for tortoise mitigation -- the firm has to buy mitigation land whether they find a tortoise or not. BrightSource also has to monitor each tortoise for five years and perform a blood analysis to check for respiratory diseases. BrightSource has up to 100 biologists working at the Ivanpah site (!).

When construction of the solar field starts in earnest later this year, Bechtel will be deploying heliostats at a rate of one per minute during working hours and completing about 6 acres of the solar field per day. In total, for all three units, they will be installing about 173,000 pylons and heliostats throughout the solar field. 

Copeland said that he thought Ivanpah was an important milestone in the US energy landscape and in that regard it was similar to the Hoover Dam, another milestone project worked on by Bechtel.  (I don't imagine a great amount of species mitigation was done on that project.) The company is also working with SolFocus on concentrating PV projects as well as other projects using flat plate PV and other CSP solar thermal technologies.

Copeland finished his presentation with these points:

  • Coal and natural gas dominate today and will dominate tomorrow without change
  • Climate and other externalities have not been valued -- to date
  • U.S., China, and India dominate the carbon issue
  • Policy and relative economics are as important as technology
  • Renewables as well as nuclear power are critical
  • We need a robust, interlocking, consistent set of technologies and policies
  • Solar energy is essentially limitless -- but not free
  • Efficiency, cost, reliability, and resource adequacy matters
  • We need all solutions -- there is no silver bullet

The picture below shows grading at Ivanpah Unit One. This design minimizes the amount of land that needs to be graded in comparison to other technologies that grade the entire site. The heliostats will be placed in between the radial access roads and will be inserted directly in the ground, without the need for cement posts and avoiding areas of sensitive habitat. Photo from BSE's Ivanpah website.