Google Inc. has invested in the largest solar energy array in the Mojave Desert in California. The project consisting of 350,000 solar mirrors spread over a five square mile radius has been called the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System. The world’s largest internet company partnered with two of America’s leading energy companies—NRG Energy and BrightSource Energy to generate over 400 megawatts of power each year. Ivanpah commenced commercial operations on Thursday, despite concerns from environmental groups over the impact of such a large solar energy plant on the region’s ecosystem.
After months of negotiations, internet giant Google has opened the state’s largest computer controlled solar mirror array that reflects the sun’s rays to 140-meter tall boiler towers that generate power through steam turbines. The Ivanpah System has been ready for operations for over a year, but the project was embroiled in controversy and has had to overcome several environmental and legal challenges.
Google’s investment to give California solar energy is expected to drastically change the state’s energy landscape. Despite being able to generate enough power to supply over 140,000 homes, environmental groups continue to battle with the Federal groups responsible for the approval of the project. A spokesperson for The California Energy Commission admitted that the project would significantly impact the environment but said that the “benefits of the project would override those impacts.” A large part of the project’s environmental impact lies in the location of Ivanpah—a dry lake bed that is still home to native flora such as the Mojave Milkweed and fauna such as sparrows, hawks and the protected Desert Tortoise. The cost of power generation has also been cited as an objection to the multi-million dollar project. A U.S. Energy Information Administration report indicates that the cost of generating solar power is over 1.5 times the cost of generation by conventional means such as coal-powered plants. However, the government subsidies and tax rebates to clean energy industries may play a role in lowering this margin.
The power plant, located in the Mojave Desert about 45 miles from Las Vegas has been backed by $168 million from Google with over $1.6 billion in loans from the United States Department of Energy (DOE).The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System has received support from the federal government on several fronts including permission for Google to use federal land for the project.
The United States’ search for alternative sources of energy has been spearheaded by President Barack Obama’s mandate to lower the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels. The opening of the Ivanpah system sees California join its neighbor Nevada and four other states Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico as locations for 17 new solar energy zones. Despite protests from several leading environmental agencies and after months of legal tussles, Google has co-invested with two of America’s largest energy firms to give California the world’s largest mirror array solar energy power facility. The impact on wildlife and vegetation as a result of these large area power generation facilities is expected to be minimal while utility companies and the federal government seek to bridge the widening gap between supply and demand for power.
By Grace Stephen