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How a Lowly Tortoise Could Derail a $250 Million IPO

Meet Gopherus agassizii. Casual acquaintances call him a desert tortoise. The endangered species is native to the Mojave desert, spends 95 percent of its time in burrows and could derail the $250 million IPO of solar thermal developer BrightSource Energy.

BrightSource's future growth is dependent upon its ability to complete all three phases of Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System -- the company's first large-scale project in the Mojave desert -- on time and within budget, according to BrightSource's S-1filing. In short, BrightSource has to avoid project delays if it hopes to stay within budget and on schedule.

Brightsource has already navigated a series of potential deal killers. It secured $1.6 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department and attracted other investors including Google (GOOG), NRG Energy and Morgan Stanley. Also, Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to buy two thirds of the power generated from the project.

Tortoise vs. mirrors: Tortoise wins!
But the desert tortoise, which has already caused the company to scale back the size of the project by 500 acres, continues to create problems for BrightSource. Earlier this month, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management put the brakes on phases two and three of the Ivanpah after finding more desert tortoises than anticipated during a monthly review of the area, Earth2Tech reported.

Not only is the project delayed -- which costs money -- but BrightSource will probably have to spend more to protect and properly move the tortoises. It's not a complete disaster, of course. BrightSource notes in its S-1 filing that it has a $66.5 million reserve to cover problems such as these. But the project still has a long way to go. Construction only began in October and is expected to be completed in 2013. That's another two years of potential project hiccups and headaches.

BrightSource has another challenge courtesy of the Mojave desert: Dust. Yes, dust. One of Brightsource's largest risk factors is whether it can cost-effectively keep the mirrors used in the Ivanpah project clean. The company anticipates each mirror will need to be cleaned every two weeks using technology that's so far unproven. This is no small ordeal. The project is spread out over 3,600 acres where thousands of mirrors are used to direct light and capture the sun's heat by boiling water to drive steam turbines.

Photo from Flickr user U.S. Army Environmental Command, CC 2.0

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