"It was pretty clear that the national club policy was to foster large-scale solar," said longtime Sierra Club member Joan Taylor. "I don't know how many times I've heard that building solar in the desert is going to save the world."
The NRDC's involvement at Ivanpah was constrained by a conflict of interest: NRDC senior attorneyRobert F. KennedyJr. is a BrightSource investor.
On the Genesis project, the Sierra Club and others met with NextEra executives and urged the company to abandon its plans for the site out of concern that
it is too close to a wilderness area. In addition, local groups warned the developer that the site contained sensitive cultural resources.
The project went ahead, only to become embroiled in controversy over the discovery of Native American cultural artifacts that halted construction on one-fifth of the site.
The Interior Department's plan to open a vast swath of desert to solar energy is another instance local activists say demonstrates the ineffectiveness of Big Green's approach.
In late 2010, environmental groups worked with energy companies and the government on a policy that restricted development to 677,000 acres in designated solar zones. Environmentalists left the table believing Interior would refine the agreement to even further reduce the land open to development.
Instead, not long after that compromise, Interior said 21 million acres would be available for development through a variance process, a change that no one in the environmental community supported. If the plan is approved as expected, the nation's leading environmental groups will have been outflanked by solar developers.
"The Sierra Club and the NRDC — their mission is to work on climate change" above all else, Sall said. "We refuse to compromise on that level."
The smaller groups have formed their own alliance, Solar Done Right, that supports renewable energy in previously disturbed or low-conflict lands. "We can have renewable energy — we can have tons of it — and we can do it in all the right ways," Sall said.
The Sierra Club's Barbara Boyle, senior lead for energy issues, said she understands the frustration of smaller groups. "I can appreciate that it doesn't seem that we have gotten what we want out of the process yet," she said.
Asked if the big players had been outmaneuvered by solar developers, Boyle said, "That's always possible."
But she said her 30 years of working for environmental causes have taught her that "the way that we win is through incremental progress."
"I have faith that we are going to get this right in the end," Boyle said. "We have made some mistakes, and that's really difficult. But it's not just any kind of development that we are working on here. We feel the urgency of getting as much renewable energy in California as soon as we can."
Leading environmental organizations fiercely dispute suggestions that they are influenced by major donors. But on solar development, they are fending off perceptions.
'Big Solar' proposal
Four years ago, the director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento wrote a document called "Big Solar." The proposal by V. John White was a pitch for solar developers to hire his company to help roll out projects.
White is a former lobbyist for the Sierra Club and the NRDC. He also lobbies and consults for energy companies.
White wrote that developers could get cooperation from environmental groups by creating a $500,000 grant-making fund. The money
ostensibly was for campaigns to tout the virtues of solar power, but the implication was unmistakable:
Give money to co-opt Big Green.
In the memo, White singled out two organizations — the Sierra Club and the NRDC — for grants. White says the fund was never created. But the strategy, coming from a former environmental lobbyist, raised the antennae of critics and invited scrutiny of funding sources.
The Energy Foundation is among the major funders of environmental groups today. It receives its money from large endowments, although not from the energy industry, and makes grants to further the goal of renewable energy. Over the last five years, the foundation has made $150 million in grants for renewable energy efforts, including $8.5 million to the NRDC and $6.2 million to the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club's zeal to eliminate coal-fired power plants led it to praise natural gas as an acceptable "bridge fuel." Club officials rewrote their gift acceptance policy when it was discovered that from 2007 to 2010 the organization accepted $26 million from individuals with or subsidiaries of Chesapeake Energy, one of the country's largest natural gas companies.
At the NRDC, public lands attorney Johanna Wald bristled at the suggestion that she or the organization has taken it easy on solar projects in return for grant money.
"It's ridiculous," Wald said. "I'm working around the clock on these issues. I couldn't be bought off, I haven't been bought off and I won't be bought off."
White has become something of a kingmaker in California on renewable energy, deciding who will represent environmental interests on various planning groups overseeing renewable energy development.
Every appointee he has chosen came from a major environmental group that supports most solar development.
As insiders in the process, Gang Green has framed the issues, Sall said, "basically saying we have to pave over huge areas of the West with solar or we are all going to burn up with climate change."
"That set a tone that we still have not overcome."
Los Angeles Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.