Southern California Tribes Resist Giant Solar Project

Published October 8, 2013

Native American tribal leaders are protesting a proposed giant solar power project in southern California they say will do irreparable harm to nearby historical artifacts. The tribal leaders asked the California Energy Commission to make substantial revisions to the project to safeguard their heritage.

The Quechan Indian Tribe’s Historical Preservation Office filed comments with the California Energy Commission (CEC), blasting the design of the project and what it says is a rush by CEC and the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to approve the solar project.

Giant Environmental Footprint
Palen Solar Holdings, a joint venture by BrightSource Energy and Spanish company Abengoa S.A, proposed the solar project, known as the Palen Solar Electric Generating System.

Designed to generate up to 500 megawatts of power, the project would be located on 5,200 acres of BLM land about 60 miles east of Indio, California. The project would feature two 750-foot-tall power towers surrounded by 85,000 reflecting mirrored heliostats.

CEC originally approved a giant solar facility on the site in 2010, but ownership of the development has changed since then. More importantly, the project’s new owners radically redesigned the plans for the project. The new owners have asked the CEC to amend its original certification to account for the new design, and to do so by the end of the year.

David vs. Goliath
The Quechan Tribe and other, smaller tribes in the area expressed strong opposition to the planned project. In its comments to the CEC, the Quechan Tribe stated the project would cause irreversible cultural and environmental damage, and it cited the huge disparity in resources between the tribe and the project’s developers. The tribe emphasized the difficulty it is having getting government officials to listen to and respond to their objections.

“The cumulative impact of solar facilities in this basin has caused irreparable damage to the physical world (animals, plants, land, sky, and water) and our connection to the spiritual world,” the tribe explained in its comments. “The fast-tracking by BLM and the tight schedule adhered to by CEC do not allow adequate time for the planning and protection of our cultural resources. Once again the laws and guidelines created by the government and agencies do not adequately address these issues or give us a voice.”

“There is a real disparity between the resources we have compared to the client, BLM, or CEC,” the tribe added. “When the client pays BLM 1/2 to 3/4 of a million dollars to complete all the regulatory requirements—we cannot compete with that. Our evidence, oral histories, stories, songs, artifacts (few remaining) weigh very little… When we question or disagree, another report is prepared to ‘demonstrate good faith effort’ and refute us.”

“The fast-tracking by BLM and the tight schedule adhered to by CEC do not allow for adequate time for the planning and protection of our cultural resources,” the tribe noted in its comments. “Once again, the laws and guidelines created by the government and agencies do not address these issues or give us a voice.” 

Pointing to the difficulties in protecting its heritage, the tribe noted “our requests or comments are deferred, delayed, disregarded, or ignored, especially by BLM.”

The tribe is suggesting the project be redesigned as a traditional photovoltaic generating station on the grounds that it would be less visually obtrusive. This is likely to be unacceptable to BrightSource, which is staking its future on power tower technology.

Renewables Get Free Pass
Marita Noon, executive director of Energy Makes America Great, says renewable energy projects inflict enormous environmental damage and get a political free pass while doing so.

“Like the waivers wind turbines get to kill endangered birds—such as the bald eagle—the  Palen Solar Electric Generating System is another example of favoritism from the Obama administration,” said Noon.

Subsidizing Environmental Destruction
Noon noted taxpayer dollars support and enable such environmental destruction.

“The developers of the project, Abengoa and BrightSource, are recipients of taxpayer funds—part of the nearly $100 billion allocated to green energy projects—from the 2009 stimulus bill. Both companies have friends in high places. Sadly, as the Quechan Indian Tribe has learned firsthand, it is difficult for the little guy to go up against a Chicago-style machine,” Noon observed.

“After the more than 50 project failures and near failures, the Department of Energy needs some successes and will do anything to achieve them—even when it means trampling on the traditions and rights of Native Americans,” Noon added. 

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]), is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.