N.A. Groups Sue CA Over Fast-track Solar Concerns


The U.S. Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management were so eager last year to beat a year-end deadline that would net $600 million in federal stimulus funding that it fast-tracked approval on several solar projects in Southern California.

But that move may have backfired. Concerned over the fast-track’s effect on sacred sites and emblematic wildlife, Native American groups are blocking six projects with legal action that, in combination with economic woes for two of the projects, could snarl the state’s efforts to convert to renewable energy by 2020.

The Native American groups said the impact on the environment was not studied carefully enough and that their leaders weren’t adequately consulted according to federal law.

The disputes could pit Native Americans against sustainable-energy advocates as well as those eager for the jobs that the projects would create in places such as the Imperial Valley, a region of 30 percent unemployment.

Several things happened in the final weeks of 2010 that ground the projects to a standstill. A federal judge granted the Quechan tribe’s motion to halt a 709-megawatt solar power plant project in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, agreeing with the tribe’s contention that it was inadequately consulted about the project, the Solar Home & Business Journal reported at the end of December.

The tribe, of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, had filed the litigation against the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the department.

Known as the Imperial Valley Solar project, the facility by Tessera Solar would employ 30,000 25-kilowatt sun catchers to generate 709 megawatts of electricity. The tribe fears that the project would permanently harm its cultural resources, according to the environmental-energy Web site Recharge News.

This includes the flat-tailed horned lizard, which plays a role in Quechan mythology. Tessora had agreed to buy 6,600 acres of lizard habitat to offset its activity on the Imperial Valley project.

A day or so after the Quechan won the injunction, the La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle sued the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in U.S. District Court in San Diego for its approval of that and five other large solar facilities, on roughly the same grounds.

These plaintiffs too say that last year’s expedited approval process made an end run around laws protecting Native American burial grounds and other resources, according to reports in the Riverside Press-Enterprise and other outlets.

Fast-track approval process led to “inadequate environmental impact statements and inadequate government-to-government consultation with the tribes” under Section 106 of the National Register of Historic Places, the groups said.

Some of this may be beside the point, since Tessora sold its 850 megawatt Calico project to K Road Sun LLC, a subsidiary of K Road, on Dec. 29. The new owner plans to start out with completely different technology—photovoltaic panels, which are more established, will be used to generate 750 megawatts, and Tessora and Stirling’s SunCatcher technology will be brought in later for the other 100 megawatts. This means that, as the environmental newsletter Grist reports, the Calico project at least is knocked back to square one when it comes to permissions, since the panels leave a much bigger footprint.

The sale occurred a few days after the injunction and about a week after Southern California Edison canceled its agreement to buy power from the Calico thermal plant, which would have created 663 megawatts of power, the Web site GreenTech Media reported. Just before the cancelation, the Irish parent company of Tessora and its partner, Stirling, NTR, said it would no longer invest in either the Calico or Imperial Valley projects.

A final irony: The deadline for the federal funding has been extended, so the reason for the initial rush is now moot.

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