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Is Google's Green Investment a PR Nightmare?

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(GOOG) rewrote the future for solar thermal start up BrightSource energy in 2008 when it announced that it would invest in the company. Thanks to its Google-supported backing and a focus by the Obama Administration to “fast-track” several solar projects, BrightSource just finalized $1.6 billion in loans from the US Department of Energy and a $168 million investment from Google to build the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System.

Housed in the Mojave Desert and slated for completion in 2013, the project will double the amount of solar thermal power produced in the US, and is being called the world’s largest solar project currently underway. It’s particularly important for the state of California, which has vowed to “receive 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020,” according to The Atlantic. BrightSource already has a deal in place to sell the energy created at Ivanpah to PG&E and Southern California Edison, creating a substantial “green” benefit of another sort for Google.

While the financial backing and public support of the initiative makes sense for Google, recognized as “one of the greenest companies in the world” for its investments in similar innovatively minded companies and commitment to smart grid, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to solar power farms. The ideal location for a solar farm is the desert, with its obvious abundance of sunlight and sprawling unused, acreage. Unfortunately, the solar farms generally require the building of transmission lines in the desert and disruption of fragile ecosystems.

From a business standpoint, the Mojave Desert is a prime location for the BrightSource/Ivanpah project because of its proximity to electricity markets in southern California and Las Vegas. The Mojave provides 16 million acres of empty sun-fueled acreage that would serve as a perfect solution to house a solar initiative that could lead the forefront of renewable energy. But there’s one problem: 4.6 million of those acres are already occupied. By desert tortoises.

The desert tortoises are powerful species, even in the courtroom. They’ve historically been used as a fighting tool by environmental groups to project the Mojave and likely will be again. Ironically, both groups could end up losing out in this proposition. Build the Ivanpah system and the desert tortoises risk extinction; forgo the project and California is left with bleak prospects for reaching a renewable energy solution. Of course, Google would be out on its investment, too.

On April 15, officials halted work on two-thirds of the construction site because of the desert tortoise population, when “biologists hired to remove tortoises from the property handled their 39th animal earlier this month,” as reported by The Press Enterprise. A federal permit allowed for the displacement of no more than 38 desert tortoises found within the project's borders; the species is listed as threatened with extinction. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to complete a new analysis of the BrightSource project's effect on desert tortoises by the end of May.
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