April 25, 2011 / 9:01 PM / 8 years ago

Tortoises Lead to Halt of Part of BrightSource’s Solar Project

Solar company BrightSource Energy has stopped working on phases 2 and 3 of its inaugural solar farm, the Ivanpah solar project (which includes investors such as Google and NRG Energy) after finding more desert tortoises on the project site than previously anticipated. BrightSource noted the suspension in its S-1 filing on Friday, and the company is planning to raise $250 million in an IPO.

The federal Bureau Land of Management issued the work suspension letter earlier this month after the company reported it had already found 39 tortoises by April 15 when it had expected to find roughly 40 overall for the entire project, BLM’s spokeswoman, Erin Curtis, told us Monday. Preliminary estimates peg the total number of the tortoises that will likely be found at the site are about 140, Curtis added.

BrightSource began building the 392 MW Ivanpah project in earnest in California’s Mojave Desert last October and expects to complete it by 2013. The project is made up of three power plants and will be built in three phases. Phase 1 is under development now, while phases 2 and 3 are now suspended, and the work for phases 2 and 3 so far has only involved putting up fencing, Curtis said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have 130 days to issue a revised biological opinion to take stock of the tortoise population and how to protect it. The Fish & Wildlife Service started to work on a new biological opinion on March 28, Curtis said. The biological opinion will determine what steps BrightSource must take to protect the larger tortoise population. The tortoises found so far have been tagged and moved to a nearby land as part of the company’s plan to minimize its project’s impact on wildlife.

Project delays typically costs money, and BrightSource will likely need to spend more money to accommodate the tortoises. BrightSource has a $66.5 million reserve that can cover budget overruns, but after that amount, BrightSource needs to foot the bill for going over budget. The company still expects to complete Ivanpah in 2013, a spokesman wrote us in an email.

The situation highlights the trend of clean power projects coming into conflict with environmentalists. Large, utility-scale solar, wind, and geothermal farms can have a significant effect on the environment in which they are being built, including disturbing animals, drilling into the ground and tapping into local water resources. Environmentalists have been some of the chief critics of building large-scale clean power in the Mojave desert in California, where BrightSource’s Ivanpah farm is under construction, and two environmental groups are also suing over BrightSource’s permits for Ivanpah.

“We asked the BLM to reinitiate consultation at Ivanpah, and they have requested our EPC contractor to discontinue fencing activities and the use of a single road at Ivanpah units 2&3 while this review is underway. We continue to anticipate that the Ivanpah power plants will come online in 2013,” wrote Keely Wachs, BrightSource’s spokesman. Wachs said the company’s wildlife protection plan, approved before construction began last year, already included a reduction of land use for the three power plants by 23 percent.

BrightSource’s plan to raise $250 million in an IPO is the latest fundraising effort for the solar company and highlights the need for the huge amount of capital needed to build solar power plants, a reality that has dashed the dreams of many companies, such as Tessera Solar and OptiSolar, to carry out their power plant projects in recent years. BrightSource is building Ivanpah with a $1.6 billion loan guarantee from the federal government and private investments including a $300 million commitment from NRG Energy and $168 million from Google .

Photo courtesy of BrightSource Energy.

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