American Indian Tribes Protest Proposed Solar Power Complex

Published October 4, 2010

BrightSource Energy, an Oakland, California corporation that designs, builds, finances, and operates utility-scale solar power plants, wants to develop its first solar power complex in California’s Mojave Desert, but several American Indian tribes are protesting the project.

Landmark Solar Project
BrightSource is proposing to build its Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System (ISEGS) near a sparsely populated area known as Ivanpah, California. The 370 megawatt complex would be located approximately 60 miles south of Las Vegas, Nevada and about five miles from the California-Nevada border.

When constructed, Ivanpah would be the first large-scale solar thermal project built in California in nearly two decades and the largest in the world. Ivanpah would nearly double the amount of commercial solar thermal electricity produced in the United States today.

Desert Disruption
Environmental activists have criticized the proposed complex for its potential effects on the endangered desert tortoise. As a result, the intended 3,600-acre site has been trimmed down from an original plan for 4,073 acres, and electricity output has been cut back from an original plan of 440 megawatts. The company also agreed to fund some desert conservation projects and avoid harmful land-grading techniques in mounting its solar mirrors.

Several American Indian tribes protesting the project, however, say Ivanpah’s revisions still impose too large of an ecological footprint and are not sufficient to protect the desert tortoise.

Phillip Smith, a Chemehuevi who’s an elder in the Colorado River Indian Tribe, and the Rev. Ron Van Fleet of the Fort Mohave Indian Tribe, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal the 5.6 mile site is a sacred place and their ancestors have come to these “altars” for centuries to worship the divine and admire the Mojave Desert.

Smith said the project threatens the tribes’ heritage and the habitat shared by federally protected desert tortoises, bighorn sheep, mountain lions, hawks, snakes, and many sensitive and medicinal plants. He said he believes the company’s project will destroy their homes to profit from federally subsidized solar power.

Solar Irony
Tom Tanton, president of the energy consulting firm T2 and Associates, noted the irony of federally subsidized alternative energy projects being protested by environmentalists.

“The only beneficiary of this project is the developer, who will reap massive tax subsidies. The electricity consumer will see higher rates. The environment will be harmed, and likely more than if a conventional power plant were constructed somewhere less sensitive,” Tanton said.

Tanton noted there would be more environmental disruption than simply the 3,600 acre ecological footprint of the complex. Roads would have to built to the complex, and transmission wires would have to be erected to transport the generated electricity to population centers.

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.