PRIMM, Nevada — A windy stretch of the Mojave Desert once roamed by tortoises and coyotes has been transformed by hundreds of thousands of mirrors into the largest solar power plant of its type in the world, a milestone for a growing industry that is testing the balance between wilderness conservation and the pursuit of green energy across the American West.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, sprawling across roughly 5 square miles of federal land near the California-Nevada border, formally opened Thursday after years of regulatory and legal tangles ranging from relocating protected tortoises to assessing the impact on Mojave milkweed and other plants.
‘‘The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy,’’ Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in a statement after attending a dedication ceremony at the site. ‘‘This project shows that building a clean-energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions, and fosters American innovation.’’
The $2.2 billion complex of three generating units, owned by NRG Energy Inc., Google Inc., and BrightSource Energy, can produce nearly 400 megawatts — enough power for 140,000 homes. It began making electricity last year.
Larger projects are on the way, but for now, Ivanpah is being described as a marker for the United States’ emerging solar industry. While solar power accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s power output, thousands of projects from large, utility-scale plants to small production sites are under construction or being planned, particularly across the sun-drenched Southwest.
The plant’s dedication comes as the government continues to push for development of greener, cleaner power.
President Obama has mounted a second-term drive to combat climate change, proposing first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. His plan aims to help move the nation from a coal-and-oil dependent past into a future fired by wind and solar power, nuclear energy, and natural gas.
Ivanpah can be seen as a success story and a cautionary tale, highlighting the inevitable trade-offs between the need for cleaner power and the loss of fragile, open land. Government documents show dozens of dead birds from sparrows to hawks have been found on the site, some with melted feathers. The suspected causes of death include collisions with mirrors and scorching.
In 2012, the federal government established 17 ‘‘solar energy zones’’ to direct development to land it has identified as having fewer wildlife and natural-resource obstacles. The zones comprise about 450 square miles in six states — California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico.