Even on paper, it was a wonder: Three expansive circles of shining mirrors supplicating three glowing 500-foot-tall towers, each engineered to turn the sun’s heat into electricity in the otherwise godforsaken Mojave Desert. The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System offered a sparkling vision of our nature-powered future, whose every gigawatt would keep tons of coal’s heat-trapping pollutants out of the atmosphere.
BrightSource Inc., a company based in Oakland, Calif., would design it. Construction giant Bechtel would build it on 4,000 acres near the California-Nevada border. It would supply clean electricity to 140,000 homes.
In 2010, when Bechtel broke ground on Ivanpah, it held such promise that President Barack Obama worked it into a speech on the nation’s energy. “With projects like this one,” he declared, “we are staking our claim to continued leadership in the new global economy.”
As its miles of glinting glass and radiant columns rose on the landscape, tourists from China and India came on buses to marvel. It attracted a $168 million investment from high-tech giant Google; the U.S. Energy Department backed its $1.6 billion in construction loans. For many energy speculators, environmentalists and green-energy proponents, a long-held dream was finally coming true. “The wasteland of the Mojave Desert,” as one Los Angeles-based energy guru put it, was on its way to becoming the “goldmine of our future energy needs.”