Meet the newest big solar developers: Native Americans

Powering up.
Powering up.
Image: BrightSource Energy
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The world’s largest solar thermal power plant plugged into the California grid this week, the first of what was supposed to be a dozen big solar projects to be built in the desert southwest of the US. It also may be one of the last for a while.

When regulators licensed BrightSource Energy’s $2 billion, 377-megawatt (MW) Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in 2009, it was the first such solar thermal project to get the green light in California in nearly three decades. Unlike photovoltaic panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal power plants deploy tens of thousands of mirrors called heliostats that focus sunlight on liquid-filled boilers to create steam. The steam drives a conventional turbine to generate electricity. Solar thermal plants are far more efficient than solar panels and offer a more dependable source of power.

But as we’ve written before, many of those projects faltered in the face of environmental opposition—they displace the imperiled desert tortoise, among other critters—and competition from ever-cheaper photovoltaic projects that can be built close to cities without the need to construct multi billion-dollar transmission lines. Even big photovoltaic desert projects, which tend to be lighter on the land, have run into fierce fights.

There is, however, one place where Big Solar remains big business: Native American lands. Today, First Solar, the giant solar panel maker and developer, announced that it had acquired a 250-megawatt photovoltaic farm to be built on the tribal lands of the Moapa Band of Paiutes Indians near Las Vegas. The project was initially developed by a New York firm called K Road Power and will sell the electricity it generates to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power under a 25-year contract.

The Moapa Solar Project is part of a massive 1,500 MW of renewable energy the tribe plans to develop, including other solar power plants. Native American projects are doubly attractive to developers like First Solar. As sovereign nations, the tribes exercise control over their lands and offer fewer avenues for opponents to use environmental laws to slow or derail projects.

First Solar representatives did not respond to requests for comment, and it’s unclear whether the Arizona company will ultimately retain ownership of the power plant. It usually develops projects and then sells them to investors or power plant operators. The Moapa sales price was not disclosed but in this case it’s essentially buying the work K Road did in getting the project approved. First Solar will design the power plant, which will produce enough electricity to power 100,000 homes, and build it with its own thin-film photovoltaic panels.

Construction is set to begin by later this year and the solar farm is expected to go online by the end of 2015. The far more technologically complex Ivanpah project, in contrast, has been under construction for four years. Some 170,000 heliostats are arrayed around three 459-foot “power towers” topped with water-filled boilers. This week engineers successfully connected the first of Ivanpah’s three phases to the grid in a test of its ability to deliver electricity to utility Pacific Gas & Electric.

While Ivanpah attracted big investments from Google, Bechtel and NRG Energy, BrightSource has abandoned several other big solar projects in California as regulatory and transmission hurdles have mounted. It’s in the process of transforming itself into a solar technology supplier to other companies.