Goldman Sachs' solar play

The never-misses-a-beat investment bank is prowling in the Mojave desert

Published July 15, 2008 8:00PM (EDT)

No U.S. journalist I'm aware of has been covering the solar power beat as well as Fortune's Todd Woody, and his latest offering, "The Southwest Desert's Real Estate Boom," shouldn't be missed. (Disclaimer: My son and Woody's son were, until a month ago, students at the same elementary school. They also share a deep affection for Japanese anime.)

One major theme of the piece is the emerging conflict between solar energy developers and environmentalists who want to ensure that the solar land rush in the Mojave Desert doesn't end up wreaking its own variety of environmental havoc. Will the desert tortoise become the new spotted owl?

My own feeling is that it's essential to hold renewable energy developers to the strictest environmental standards, or what's the point? But I was also fascinated by Woody's account of Goldman Sachs' solar "prospecting."

...No one has been as quick to move into the Mojave -- or as tightlipped about it -- as Solar Investments.

That entity, it turns out, is Goldman Sachs' solar subsidiary. The investment bank's designs on the desert are a topic of intense interest and speculation. Goldman declined to comment. But here's what we know:

Solar Investments filed its first land claim in December 2006 and within a month had applied for more than 125,000 acres for power plants that would produce ten gigawatts of electricity. Many of the sites lie close to the transmission lines that connect the desert to coastal cities. (Goldman has also staked claims on 40,000 acres of the Nevada desert.)

Nobody expects Goldman to begin operating solar plants. It will probably either partner with another developer or sell its limited-liability company (and its leases) outright. The firm has been making the rounds of solar developers....

"I view Goldman as a very interesting indicator of things to come," says Brian McDonald, PG&E's director of renewable-resource development.

There's money to be made in them there desert! The desert tortoise has a right to be alarmed, but for those humans biting their lips in impatience as they wait for solar power to hit the prime time, Goldman Sachs' solar power play is an encouraging sign.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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