BrightSource Buys Fallen Solar Trust’s 500-MW Project

BrightSource Energy, the company that’s building the massive, government-backed Ivanpah solar power plant in the California desert, is on its way to snapping up one of bankrupt Solar Trust’s planned utility-scale projects.

Bloomberg News said BrightSource, based in Oakland, Calif., confirmed that it was the high bidder for the Palen Solar Power Project, a 500-megawatt installation, consisting of two 250-MW plants, planned for about 80 miles east of Palm Springs.

blythe solar, solar trust, solar millennium

image via Solar Millennium

The project has been planned for years, but according to the Bureau of Land Management website, it is still awaiting clearance for a right-of-way grant of nearly 5,200 acres.

Solar Trust, the U.S. division of the German company Solar Millennium, had several projects planned in the American Southwest with various partners. The original intention for the projects was to use parabolic troughs to produce solar thermal power. But that strategy was abandoned in favor of photovoltaics at the plant furthest along in the development process, the Blythe Solar Power Project – the only project to be fully permitted, according to the BLM.

BrightSource favors solar thermal, but of a different sort than Solar Trust: At the 392-MW Ivanpah plant, it’s installing thousands of mirrors, called heliostats, that reflect sunlight onto a giant tower, where the heat produces steam to turn a turbine.

BrightSource has claimed that its “power tower” system requires up to 33 percent less land than a photovoltaic array or parabolic trough solar thermal plant. By installing mirrors on individual poles placed directly into the ground, the company says it is able to build plants around the natural contours of the land. This method, the company says, avoids the land grading and concrete pouring associated with other solar technology systems, and retains native vegetation growth under the mirrors.

At Ivanpah, BrightSource has had to take particular care to avoid disturbing the endangered desert tortoise. If it builds at the Palen site, it might have to contend with another critter: the conservation group Basin and Range Watch calls the Palen Dry Lake “core habitat for the Mojave fringe-toed lizard.”

With Palen apparently sold off, the fate of the most notable of the other Solar Trust projects, Blythe, remains to be seen.

Just a year ago Solar Trust was conditionally awarded a $2.1 billion loan guarantee — which it ended up not taking — by the U.S. Department of Energy to build the first two units of the planned four-unit, 1,000-megawatt Blythe project. When Solar Millennium fell into dire financial straits last year, another German company, Solarhybrid, attempted to buy Solar Trust. That deal was on and off again at various junctures, before finally succumbing for good when Solarhybrid itself moved to declare bankruptcy. Solar Trust was then left to fend for itself, and it was unable to survive, filing for bankruptcy protection in early April.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.