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Why Google's $168M Solar Investment Will Piss Off Environmentalists

Google will soon discover that even do-gooder clean energy projects can conflict with its Don't Be Evil philosophy. Google (GOOG) invested $168 million this week in BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, a massive project in the Mojave desert that will generate enough electricity to power 140,000 homes.

By almost every angle, the Ivanpah project looks like an ideal investment for Google.

  • It's massive. When it's completed in 2013, the Ivanpah project will double the amount of solar thermal power produced in the United States.
  • It already has financing. Major backers include NRG Energy and the U.S. Energy Department, which just finalized $1.6 billion in loan guarantees with BrightSource.
  • It's innovative. BrightSource uses mirrors to direct light, capturing the sun's heat by boiling water to drive steam turbines. However, Ivanpah uses 95 percent less water than other solar thermal systems by converting that steam back into water.
  • It already has a buyer. BrightSource has a deal to with Pacific Gas & Electric for two thirds of the power generated from the project. Southern California Edison will buy the remaining power.
And then there are the tortoises and the desert landscape. BrightSource has been plagued by environmentalists -- aka nature lovers -- who are concerned the project will devastate the desert tortoise habitat and the Mojave's scenic vistas.

Cue the enviro opposition
This isn't some ragtag group of treehuggers. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Wildlife Conservancy have all protested Ivanpah and other solar companies that have plans to build in the desert. Feinstein proposed in late 2009 the creation of two monuments in the Mojave to protect the natural environment. Several months later, BrightSource agreed to shrink its Ivanpah project from 4,000 to 3,500 acres.

Google's investment puts it at direct odds with conservationists and in step with a new breed of environmentalists who have rationalized large-scale clean energy as projects that do more good than harm. Google is now aligned with BrightSource's other financial backers which includes utility NRG Energy, Morgan Stanley and oil companies Chevron (CVX) and BP.

Google clearly views solar and wind power as worthy investments. The company has now invested $250 million in clean energy projects (includes the Ivanpah); its philanthropic arm has funded numerous projects all focused on making renewable energy cheaper than coal; and its subsidiary Google Energy has used its wholesale authority to buy power from an Iowa wind farm. As Google ramps up its financial commitment to clean energy the company will have to adjust its philosophy or avoid these large-scale projects altogether.

Photo of aerial view of Ivanpah project courtesy of and photographer Erin whitfield; solar project photo from BrightSource

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