Watch CBS News

National Parks Advocacy Group Claims Location Of Ivanpah Solar Power Project Comes At Nature's Expense

MOJAVE DESERT ( — A national parks advocacy group claims that a massive solar power plant being constructed in the Mojave Desert, southwest of Las Vegas, is generating clean renewable energy at the expense of nature.

The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, which will cost $2.2 billion and has taken three years to build, was developed by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy. Its largest investor is New Jersey-based NRG Energy.

Randall Hickok, the senior vice president of NRG Solar—a subsidiary of NRG Energy—said the facility contains three 450-foot towers surrounded by 170,000 heliostat mirrors.

"You are using the sun's heat, reflected by mirrors, to shine on that boiler, and generate steam. From there on out, it's just like a regular power plant. Steam turns turbine, turbine turns the generator, you've got electricity," he said.

Hickok said the solar project was constructed in the desert because the area was deemed to be degraded environmentally.

"Environmentally, it is less prone to have wildlife than other locations. It's located near some high voltage transmission lines. And it's reasonably close to the freeway, so getting equipment in and out was easier," he said.

When Ivanpah is fully online by the end of 2013, the plant will be able to generate power for 140,000 households servicing Los Angeles, Las Vegas and, in some cases, Northern California.

The energy is so clean, it's the equivalent of taking 70,000 cars off the road.

"There are no discharges to the lands. It's sunshine making steam, and the plant is water-cooled, but it's a closed system. It's like a giant radiator in your car," said Hickok.

While Hickok touts Ivanpah as environmentally friendly, construction on the project was halted in 2011 because 127 desert tortoises needed to be relocated.

"We are supportive, in concept, of the Ivanpah project. We were not supportive of the location. Primarily because of the impacts on national parks, the Mojave National Preserve, which surrounds us right now. And also because of the impacts to the federally-threatened desert tortoise," said David Lamfrom of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Hickok, however, said they had up to 85 biologists working full-time during the construction period to find the tortoises and get them out of harm's way.

Lamfrom said there are better places to build a solar plant.

"There are literally millions of acres of disturbed land. There are brownfields, there are mine sites, there are profound opportunities," he said.

"It takes the desert a tremendously long time to heal. That is one of the reasons we have to make really careful decisions about where we put these projects. Because if you develop a piece of land in the desert, it may not revegetate properly…it may not return to full health for hundreds of years or longer," added Lamfrom.

To date, 25 solar power projects have been approved by the Obama administration nationwide.

As for the Ivanpah Valley, three other plants are planned. One has gotten approval; two others are waiting for confirmation.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.