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Controversial plan for solar thermal power facility in Mojave Desert dropped

September 17, 2009 |  1:46 pm

BrightSource Energy Inc. today said it has scrapped a controversial plan to build a major solar thermal power facility in eastern Mojave Desert wilderness that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.-Calif.) wants to transform into a national monument.

The announcement ended a long-running dispute between backers of renewable energy and environmentalists strongly opposed to the idea of creating an industrial zone within 600,000 acres of former railroad lands that had been donated to the Department of Interior for conservation.

The acrimony even triggered a nasty public squabble between Robert Kennedy Jr., a senior advisor at VantagePoint Venture Partners, which raised $160 million for BrightSource, and David Myers, executive director of the Wildlands Conservancy, which raised $40 million to buy the railroad lands and protect them from development. 

Of particular concern was BrightSource’s application to develop a solar power plant on a portion of the donated lands known as Broadwell Dry Lake, which lies within Sleeping Beauty Valley. The scenic, near pristine region is home to bighorn mountain sheep and a variety of plants and reptiles found nowhere else.

Today, BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs said, “We have ceased all activity at the Broadwell site ... We will not build inside of a national monument.” “Our core mission is to protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions,” he added. “We share Sen. Feinstein’s values on this matter.”

News of the company’s announcement came as a welcomed surprise to environmentalists. “BrightSource should be saluted for their corporate responsibility,” Myers said. “A major conflict between renewable energy and environmentalists has just evaporated.”

Elden Hughes, former chairman of the Sierra Club’s California-Nevada Desert Committee, called the company’s announcement “fantastic news.” “Broadwell is one of the most beautiful vistas in the desert,” he said. “I’ve seen it covered with yellow flowers to the horizon in all directions.”

The BrightSource application was one of 19 under review by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Wachs said the company had ceased activity at the Broadwell site “a few months ago.”

Around the same time, the company began seeking alternative sites for that project “in and outside of the state,” he said.

-- Louis Sahagun