BrightSource IPO: Smoke and Mirrors

BrightSource Energy is planning its initial public offering (IPO) in NASDAQ this week.  This company touts itself as a green messiah bringing us energy from the future, yet its business model is simply unsustainable because it requires vast tracts of land and amounts of water in an ecosystem that already shoulders many public burdens.  And it does not help when they are running into conflict with State and Federal officials.

Outdated Way to Harvest Clean Energy
Unlike Solar City or Sungevity, BrightSource did not get the memo that the sun shines on rooftops and cities as much as it does on remote deserts.  Investing in BrightSource is like investing in a company making gramophones.  BrightSource Energy's facility design -- thousands of large mirrors focusing the sun's rays onto central power towers that heat up and generate energy -- is an archaic and destructive way of harvesting solar energy that requires years of planning, legal challenges, and new transmission lines.  Although the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts may look like a wasteland to some big solar companies, the desert's open spaces and water are already sought after by a myriad of other users, including off-highway vehicle riding, agriculture, mining, grazing, hiking, camping, rock climbing, and rock hounding.  This Tragedy of the Commons is partly to blame for the Federal listing of the desert tortoise -- California's state reptile -- as a threatened species, and many other desert plant and animals having special conservation status.

In this photo by Basin and Range Watch, tractors have cleared much of the vegetation around just one of three towers for the Ivanpah Solar facility.
Greenwash Wearing Away
BrightSource Energy started out with green credentials by default as a solar energy company, but the greenwash on its surface began to quickly wear away with its first project.  The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the northeast Mojave Desert has already displaced or killed over 130 desert tortoises, creating much publicized delays in construction.  Although the company tells the public it's mirrors allow native vegetation to grow underneath, that is like a housing developer saying that ants and mice will return to areas where it builds new homes.  The shrubs and cactus are mowed down (see video here) and most are unlikely to grow back, habitat is fenced off, most wildlife is kicked out of the area or killed, and the ground is so disturbed by construction that invasive plant species are likely to impact the surrounding desert.
This Google Earth image shows the scars carved in the desert by bulldozers for BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar project.  the image only shows about one-third of the planned destruction.
Project Pipeline On Bumpy Road
So BrightSource Energy's first project turned out to be a bad idea.  Maybe their next choice of location won't be so problematic?  Don't hold your breath.  The company's proposed Rio Mesa Solar project would be built near a wildlife refuge and along the "Pacific Flyway," a major bird migration path. Federal and State officials are concerned that migratory birds could collide with the thousands of mirrors, or incinerate in the superheated air near the tower.  BrightSource's proposed Hidden Hills project would deplete groundwater near the Amargosa River, home to many special status bird and plants and animals, and cost Inyo County millions of dollars to improve public services in a remote stretch of desert east of Death Valley National Park.

BrightSource is developing another project in the Siberia region of the central Mojave Desert, which could impact lands donated to the Federal government for conservation purposes, and would be built along a stretch of historic Route 66 treasured for its scenic desert vistas.  In Nevada, the company wants to build massive facilities in the Sandy Valley and near the Valley of Fire, just outside of Las Vegas, but California's utilities have a long backlog of power purchase requests for clean energy, and the Governor of California is reluctant to import clean energy that can be generated in the state.

BrightSource Energy is sure to pump up its green image to attract green investors, but if you truly want to make an impact, find solar companies with a more sincere green ethic. Rooftop solar installers like Solar City, or companies building facilities on already-disturbed lands.  If you want to make a difference in communities -- providing clean energy, local jobs, and sparing our wildlands from destruction -- check out Solar Mosaic.


  1. You are the man, Shaun.

    For the best up to date information on the Mojave Desert, especially renewable energy news, I come to your site.

    Excellent information and commentary!

  2. OMG this makes me so angry and sad! How can this be allowed??
    "The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the northeast Mojave Desert has already displaced or killed over 130 desert tortoises, creating much publicized delays in construction. "


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