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Brightsource Ivanpah solar project gets final clearance, readies for construction

October 7, 2010 |  2:41 pm

Brightsource With financing, a labor agreement and now federal and state permits squared away, Brightsource Energy Inc. is likely to be the first major solar developer in decades to break ground in the California desert.

The federal Bureau of Land Management on Thursday approved the Oakland-based company’s Ivanpah Electric Generating System project, which will start construction in the coming weeks in San Bernardino County.

State and federal regulatory agencies have been busy since August, sweeping through several massive renewable energy proposals while speeding up the permitting process. Developers are hoping to break ground by the end of the year so they can take advantage of stimulus funds that could take care of up to 30% of project costs.

On Tuesday, the Bureau of Land Management approved two projects from Tessera Solar and Chevron Energy Systems -– the first solar projects ever to be cleared for public land.

The 370-megawatt Ivanpah installation will include three separate plants that will use 173,500 mirrors to focus solar energy on central “power towers.” Steam created inside will drive turbines to produce enough electricity to power up to 277,500 homes, the federal agency said.

Utilities have already signed contracts to buy the power. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. will get about two-thirds and Southern California Edison will get the rest.

Construction is expected to wrap up by the end of 2013 and will nearly double the amount of solar thermal electricity currently being produced in the country, officials said. The Ivanpah effort will create $300 million in local and state tax revenue, they said.

The Brightsource project is one of the few of its size that already has enough financing to start  building –- the federal Department of Energy awarded the company $1.37 billion in loan guarantees in February to support the installation.

Even President Obama touted the planned facility in his weekly address Saturday, saying that it was the “largest such plant in the world. Not in China, not in India, but in California.”

“With projects like this one, and others across this country, we are staking our claim to continued leadership in the new global economy,” he said.

Brightsource has said that more than 1,000 local union workers will have jobs at the peak of construction and that the project will generate $650 million in employee wages over its 30-year life. Brightsource brought on Bechtel Construction Co. as the installation’s engineering and construction contractor.

The company has also tried to placate concerned environmentalists, who complain that construction and operation of the plant will harm native species and a delicate ecosystem.

The 3,500-acre site was scaled down from a larger proposed area and the number of mirrors was cut back. Instead of using land grading and traditional concrete mounting pads, the mirrors will be attached to poles that take up less space.

--Tiffany Hsu

Graphic: Bureau of Land Management