Now that the most recent issue of the Desert Report has been out for a couple of weeks, I think it’s fair for me to repost here the article I have in said issue. There’s plenty more articles where this one came from — by other, more expert and engaging writers — and you should definitely endure the hassle with the PDF download to read it.
On a personal note, I’m pleased to have snuck in under the wire as longtime Desert Report editor Craig Deutsche’s tenure comes to an end. Craig has done some amazing work there. Fortunately for us readers his replacement, Stacy Goss, is well equipped to fill Craig’s desert boots.
The Desert Report has long been a Sierra Club-sponsored publication. The Club cut all funding for the Report in the last year, coincident with the rise of promoting industrial renewables as a Club National agendum. I’m proud to say that the Desert Protective Council has tossed a not insubstantial amount of financial support their way, but DPC can’t afford to shoulder the entire cost. The Report is looking for contributions — financial and content — and I encourage you to help them out.
The Ivanpah Solar Energy Facility: Smoke And Mirrors
October 27 was a cool day in the Ivanpah Valley; the temperature never broke 70 degrees. The people standing out on the bajada at the Primm Golf Course looked comfortable and collected in their business casual, if a little windblown. Among them were reporters and photographers, representatives of San Bernardino County, representatives of building trade unions, as well as supporters bused in from Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Brightsource CEO John Woolard and VP Joshua Bar-Lev were there, fresh from negotiating a $300 million equity investment in their project by a New Jersey firm. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar flew in by helicopter. The earthbound California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sped past a knot of protestors at the entry to the event, his limo moving at twice the legal limit.
The occasion was the groundbreaking of BrightSource’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station (SEGS). On completion, the project’s more than 170,000 mirrored heliostats would track the sun, focusing its heat on three boilers atop 459-foot towers. Steam would drive turbines, generating a maximum of 392 megawatts of electricity. The average over time would be less than a third that. The cost: 3,400 acres of some of the best tortoise habitat in California, with ancient yucca clones, old-growth creosote, the endangered Rusby’s desert mallow (Sphaeralcea rusbyi var. eremicola), and much of California’s population of the Mojave milkweed (Asclepias nyctaginifolia). Though BrightSource claimed the site configuration would allow rows of “trimmed” native vegetation between the heliostats, the land would be useless as habitat, and the trimmed shrubs would almost certainly die within a couple of years. The desert landscape would be converted to an industrial area.
By the time Arnold’s ride sped past them, the tortoises on the site had already caused BrightSource concern. Biologists canvassing the area in advance of the bulldozers had found many more tortoises than BrightSource or the Feds had anticipated. By the day previous, the number had reached 27. The Biological Opinion, prepared by the Fish and Wildlife Service for the BrightSource project, had predicted that only 12 tortoises would be found in the area of the project’s Phase 1. A total of 32 was predicted for the entire site. If biologists were to find 38 tortoises on site it would trigger a round of renegotiation with Fish and Wildlife over BrightSource’s incidental take permit. It was starting to look like they might find more than 38 tortoises just in the footprint of Phase 1. Some of the biologists began to speculate that there could be as many as 100 tortoises on the site, perhaps even 125.
A few tortoises were determined to have strayed into the project area from nearby burrows. They were simply moved out of the way. The rest were in holding pens waiting to be moved off-site. A week earlier, during a BrightSource press tour, reporters watched as a mortally wounded tortoise slowly died. The BLM blamed traffic on Colosseum Road. Onlookers speculated that it had been hit by some heavy equipment. Not long after, another tortoise on the site fell victim to a coyote.
None of this appeared to faze Governor Schwarzenegger. He dedicated an historic marker at the site noting the groundbreaking. Standing in front of one of the project’s 10’ by14’ heliostats, he told the assembled crowd “Some people look out into the desert and see miles and miles of emptiness. I see miles and miles of gold mine.” He then returned to his limousine and sped away.
Schwarzenegger’s quip is chilling to those with a sense of history. The Gold Rush of 1849 and subsequent years brought unprecedented devastation to old California, from the hydraulic mining that washed away whole hillsides, to the wholesale displacement of Native Californians that followed in its wake. The Governor’s invocation of the Gold Rush to describe future solar development seemed to portend a repeat of old tragedies.
As this Solar Gold Rush commences over the protests of desert preservation activists, Native people have taken note of the destructive scale of these projects as well, many of them proposed for sacred sites or places with significant archaeological and cultural value. Ivanpah attracted Native notice early on. Part of the traditional lands of the Southern Paiute, the valley was long frequented by the Chemehuevi and Mojave people as well. It offered relatively abundant game, plant food and medicines, and reliable springs. (The name Ivanpah means “clean water” in the Chemehuevi language.)
Native and non-native activists began working together to oppose the Ivanpah SEGS at Camp Ivanpah, a three-day protest encampment on the project site that took place from September 14-16. Chemehuevi elder Philip Smith explained to participants that his people had come to the Ivanpah Valley for centuries, visiting a small ridge northwest of the site. Ancient stonework atop the ridge hints at the significance of the place. Low walls hold shelves on which people once placed offerings. A stone triangle points at Spirit Mountain 50 miles southeast, the traditional origin point of the desert people. Despite the site’s significance to his people, Smith said, the BLM had not adequately consulted with the Chemehuevi, even omitting any record of Smith’s attendance at public meetings.
The Spirit Run
On October 16, a month after Camp Ivanpah, two dozen members of tribes from the Colorado River and the Coachella valleys — along with another dozen Non-native supporters — held a Spirit Run, a traditional physical act of prayer signaling kinship with and commitment to the land on which the run takes place. Similar Spirit Runs had been held in the 1990s to protest a proposed nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley.
At six in the morning, as the first group of runners assembled along Ivanpah Road in the Preserve, a cluster of people gathered to read a letter sent to Ivanpah activists by Sierra Club Director Michael Brune and Robin Mann, President of the Club’s Board of Directors. The letter was not sent to support the Spirit Run; it announced to Sierra Club activists the Club’s decision not to sue over Ivanpah. It began: “No one said that clean energy would be easy.” It ended with an admonition that Club members not stray from a list of approved talking points when talking to the press.
Lack of support from the Club notwithstanding, the Spirit Run began as the sun began to rise above the New York Mountains. Reverend Ron Van Fleet, an affable and yet imposing member of the Mohave tribe and the event’s lead organizer, was the first to run. He headed along Ivanpah Road toward the project site. A mile down the road he stopped, and a waiting runner took up the metaphorical baton. Relays continued in this fashion until the Spirit Run finally arrived at the Ivanpah Dry Lake just downhill from the SEGS site. From the playa, a row of heavy equipment, just visible at the far end of Phase 1, was raising a cloud of dust as they installed tortoise exclusion fencing. Philip Smith took a group of runners to the cultural site on the ridge and explained its significance. For the next several hours on the playa people shared food, listened to a group of Native singers, and shared stories and strategies. Fierce sun and dust-devils battered the gathering, and people wondered aloud what similar dust storms would do to 170,000 mirrors.
Eleven days later, as the Governor’s limo made its own cloud of dust heading away from the groundbreaking ceremony; the small group of protestors bore witness as flatbed trucks carried huge construction equipment toward the site. Representatives of Basin and Range Watch were there, as were a group of hikers from Desert Survivors who’d been camping nearby and got the news of the ceremony by email.
National press in attendance took note, and so despite mainstream environmental groups acceding to the project, the image that accompanied reports of the groundbreaking was this: a gigantic bulldozer bearing down on a few people waving a flag representing the desert tortoise. The flag looked delicate against the dozer’s juggernaut. The dozer’s victory was likely inevitable. But at least someone was there to hold that flag.