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NextEra solar project advances despite “significant impacts”

by Dan Fischer
Alfredo A. Figueroa, the historian and Chemehuevi elder we quoted in our recent article on the Ivanpah solar project, sent the following email yesterday about the NextEra Blythe Solar Project‘s assault on southern California desert. In January, the California Energy Commission decided to approve a revised proposal for the $1.13 billion, 485-megawatt project, which will use solar photovoltaic technology.
To All the Environmental Activists and Defenders of Mother Earth and Enforcers of the Creation Story along the Colorado River
We urge you to please contact State and Federal government officials, Senators, Congressman, Secretary of Interior, President Obama, etc to please stop these solar power projects. Since the destruction of the Twin Towers by Hernan Cortes in 1521 in Mexico, there hasn’t been anything more devastating  than what the solar project have done and are still threatening to do to the sacred sites especially the Kokopilli/Cicimitl Twin Geoglyph Group.
Please forward this information to your contacts so we can get the word out to everyone.
If you have any questions, please let us know. We will be more than glad to answer you.
Alfredo Acosta Figueroa
Patricia Robles

Significant Impacts

In October, the California Energy Commission, the same institution that recently approved the solar project, published an assessment voicing serious concerns. The commission concluded NextEra Blythe would have “significant impacts” on the environment and would eliminate “all native plant and wildlife communities” across 4003 acres. Habitat would be lost for “desert tortoise, American badger, desert kit fox, golden eagle, various migratory birds, burrowing owl, and Mojave fringe-toed lizard.”

Although NextEra intends to mitigate these damages, the report finds that despite these measures the effect on protected avian and bat species “may remain significant.” NextEra’s poor environmental track record also leaves doubt about the efficacy of its mitigation plans. NextEra operates Florida’s West County Energy Center, which Earth First! Journal reported last year to be the largest fossil fuel plant in the US. NextEra also owns New Hampshire’s dangerous Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant. Some 2,400 people famously occupied the Seabrook site in 1977 in opposition to nuclear power. Police arrested 1,400 of them.

Furthermore, NextEra’s solar project would negatively impact “approximately 142 known archaeological resources eligible or assumed eligible for the California Register of Historical Resources,” according to the California commission. Affected sites and items would include ancient footpaths, shards of a pot “possibly associated with sacred activity,” and a rock structure thought to be connected with female puberty rites. The Chemehuevi, Mohave, Quechan, Maricopa, and Halchidhoma have used the area and consider it sacred.

“We are the official guardians”
The attachments in Figueroa’s email include the following photos of sacred geoglyphs (large etchings in the ground) near the project site. The first one depicts Kokopili, a deity in a half human, half insect form. The documentation explains Kokopili is hurt “because humans have not respected the Creator’s dictation of harmonious equilibrium among all species.” The second geoglyph depicts Kokopili’s twin Cicimitl.
Geoglyph 1Geoglyph 2

Google Earth images from the early 1990s do not contain the geoglyphs, suggesting that they are of recent origin. The California Energy Commission’s report even asserts there is “no evidence” that the sites are exceptionally significant. I asked Figueroa to respond in an email.

“The Kokopili/Cicimtl Geoglyph Group is known throughout the world,” Figueroa wrote. “These geoglyph images are a major part of the Indigenous history and tradition and of the creation story of all Native-American Tribes and of Mexico.”

He continued, “We are the official guardians of these geoglyphs as stated in a Memorandum of Understanding with the Bureau of Land Management.”

Although NextEra contends their development will not directly damage the geoglyphs, the Chemehuvi Tribe’s chairman Charles Wood considers interference with surrounding land to be tantamount to interference with the sites themselves.

“I use the example of the Catholic Church. I want to build a pipeline through the Vatican mall. It’s really not a part of the Vatican, so it’s not sacred. And suddenly they’re saying no, this whole area is sacred. And for Indian people that’s one of the things we’re constantly coming up against. We look at not that little area, but we look at the total landscape, especially with regard to the geoglyphs. There are hundreds of them, and they’re probably over a stretch of hundreds of miles. And they all inter-connect. (The Killing of Kokopili)

If It’s Broke…Break It More

The California Energy Commission’s report employed a disturbing logic when discussing several sacred sites. Basically, they argue that since sites have already been significant degraded by surrounding pollution, it is therefore permissible to desecrate these sites further.

In addition, staff notes the close proximity of the throne to multiple and incompatible modern developments such as an interstate highway, transmission lines, four wheel drive roads, cell towers, an illegal trash dump and a nearby airport that mar the integrity of setting, feeling, and association, that, were the throne to be indeed a historical resource, would no longer convey its significance. Further, the two individual petroglyphs, while more likely of greater age than 50 years have also lost integrity due to similar reasons stated above (California Energy Commission, page 85).

This way of thinking could provide an incentive to companies to damage additional protected land, so that this land will likewise be considered to have lost its “integrity”.

National Monuments

Mr. Figueroa believes NextEra’s development violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which includes the right to protect past, present and future manifestations of culture, including archeological and historical sites. Figueroa cited articles 8, 11, and 13.

I asked Mr. Figueroa what he would like to see happen in the southern California desert.

“These geoglyphs should be declared National Monument Sites by President Obama and World Heritage Sites by UNESCO,” he wrote. “We are currently submitting our request to UNESCO. These are sacred sites.”

Contact Decision-Makers

Figueroa urges people to contact the White House, Department of the Interior, Senators and Congressional representative and voice opposition to NextEra’s Blythe Solar Power Project which destroys sacred cultural sites.
1) Sign this petition to the Department of the Interior and White House.
2) Contact the Department of the Interior at (202) 208-3100 and feedback@ios.doi.gov.

3) Contact your US Senators and Congressional Representatives.

Attachments in Figueroa’s email:
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Big Solar: Plundering the Mojave Desert

by Dan Fischer

“Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles and miles of gold mine.”
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at the start of Ivanpah Solar Power Facility’s construction

800px-Ivanpah_Solar_Power_Facility_(2)

The world’s largest solar thermal energy facility, the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, opened last Thursday in California’s Mojave Desert. Unfortunately, this is bad news for neighboring indigenous people, the desert tortoise, and local birds. It is an example of solar done wrong.

Ivanpah use mirrors to reflect sunlight, in order to heat and boil water. This produces steam, which spins turbines to produce electricity. When done at a small scale, it can be a clean and sustainable process. Photovoltaic solar panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, are even more democratic. They are easy to decentralize and put on rooftops.

In fact, Ivanpah’s grassroots opponents tend to strongly support solar power. The group Solar Done Right advocates decentralized solar energy as an alternative to mega-solar projects like Ivanpah. They argue that there is plenty of already-paved surface where we can safely install solar panels: rooftops, vacant parking lots, and former industrial sites known as brownfields.

According to the US Department of Energy, supplying all of the country’s electricity from solar photovoltaics would require 17 square miles of land in each state. Brownfields alone could provide 90 percent of the needed land!

The Google-NRG-BrightSource Approach

The owners of Ivanpah—Google, NRG Energy and BrightSource—took a far more destructive, centralized approach. Their installation is four times larger than New York’s Central Park. According to Reuters, it can even be seen from space! Even worse, the companies decided to build it in the Mojave Desert, a highly sensitive ecosystem and sacred land for the Coloardo River Indian Tribes.

“Yes, it is good to make use of the sun but not when it comes to disturb sacred sites, pristine desert, the turtles or the horny toad,” says Alfredo Figueroa, a Chemehuevi elder and member of La Cuna de Azltán Sacred Sites Protection Circle. Figueroa argues that the historically migratory Chemehuevi people certainly have burial grounds in the sites where mega-solar projects are developing.

Phil Smith, another Chemehuevi elder, says Ivanpah approaches a centuries-old Chemehuevi prayer altar. In December 2010, La Cuna sued to stop the development of Ivanpah and five other mega-solar projects in the Mojave.

The Mojave is habitat for the desert tortoise, a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The number of desert tortoises has decreased by 90% since the 1950s, according to Defenders of Wildlife. In 2011, the Bureau of Land Management estimated Ivanpah’s construction would kill as many as 700 juvenile tortoises and would disturb thousands.

Ivanpah could also prove disastrous to birds, since it is adjacent to the critical bird breeding ground Clark Mountain. With three 40-story towers and hundreds of thousands of mirrors, the installation scorches birds to death as it reaches extreme heats, up to 1,000 degrees Farenheight. Regulators have already found dozens of dead birds there including “a peregrine falcon, a grebe, two hawks, four nighthawk and a variety of warblers and sparrows,” according to the Wall Street Journal, which called Ivanpah “The $2.2 Billion Bird-Scorching Solar Project.”

The Right Kind

Liberal environmentalists say climate change is so urgent that we have no time to oppose mega-solar projects. Their single-issue approach is politically suicidal. Abolishing fossil fuels will require a coalition that includes people organized around issues like indigenous rights, wildlife loss, and corporate power. To say these issues matter in the case of Keystone XL but not in the case of Ivanpah is to invite accusations of doublethink. That is, it will invite accusations that they sometimes believe one thing and sometimes believe the exact opposite.

Last November, about 90 people from across Connecticut got together to hear the engineer Mark Jacobson explain how wind, water and sunlight can meet all of the world’s energy needs. The event was inspiring enough that the Connecticut Sierra Club shortly afterwards endorsed the goal of 100% renewable energy within 17 years. It was clearly exciting to see so many people envision a world without fossil fuel energy.

Still, the example of Ivanpah shows that climate activists need to clarify what kind of renewable energy they support. There is the wrong kind: the kind that sacrifices people and ecosystems while enriching corporations. Examples include Ivanpah, Transcanada’s Kibby Mountain wind farm, and HydroQuebec’s mega-dams. Then there is the right kind: the socially just kind, the ecologically sound kind.