Google, US Department of Energy Help Make Giant Solar Plant a Reality

One of the world’s biggest solar projects received a major boost this week with the announcement that Google will invest $168 million to help get it off the ground. On the same day, the US Department of Energy (DOE) announced a $1.6 billion loan guarantee to the same project, the Ivanpah solar thermal plant. Both announcements are good news for the US solar industry, and bode well for what could be a truly ground-breaking renewable energy venture.

BrightSource Energy, developer of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, says the 392 megawatt project will be the world’s biggest solar thermal plant by the time it is finished in 2013. Unlike solar photovoltaics, which use light from the sun to generate electricity, solar thermal plants produce energy from the sun’s heat. The Ivanpah System is actually a complex of three plants, each of which will use mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy on a 450 foot tall tower. BrightSource Energy says the Ivanpah System will produce enough electricity to power 140,000 homes during peak hours, and that it will reduce carbon emissions by over 400,000 tons each year.

The site of the project is—where else?—in sunny, renewable energy-friendly California. Located on federal land in the Mojave Desert, the plant will be well-positioned to provide electricity to some of the most populated parts of the country. If successful the Ivanpah project could serve as a model for future solar thermal plants through the southern half of the United States.

While it would be nice to think a network of Ivanpah-like projects might spring up across the country, it’s important to realize such a dream is contingent on state and federal government bodies making smart decisions. It’s almost certainly no coincidence the Ivanpah System is being built in California, which has done more than any other state to signal it is serious about embracing renewable energy. It is also worth remembering that Google, which is helping make Ivanpah a reality, was at the forefront of the fight to defeat California Proposition 23 last November. If Prop 23 had passed it would have suspended California’s landmark global warming law, threatening the viability of clean energy projects like Ivanpah.

Finally the $1.6 billion DOE now coming Ivanpah’s way might not have materialized had progressives in Congress not managed to prevent DOE’s finances being slashed in this month’s battle over budget cuts. Republicans in Congress had originally proposed drastic reductions in DOE’s budget, which might have made loans to Ivanpah and similar renewable energy projects impossible. The viability of clean energy projects that create new jobs while reducing carbon emissions is a direct result of state and federal decisions that encourage renewable energy.

As forward-thinking companies like Google know well, government incentives and finance programs are an essential tool for driving the shift to clean energy. Whether at the state or local level, such initiative help a first-of-its-kind renewable project get off the ground and compete in an economic sector long dominated by the fossil fuel industries. As every true entrepreneur knows, and as the case of Ivanpah demonstrates, innovative projects don’t just happen: they’re the product of careful planning and smart decisions.

Photo credit: Alejandro Flores