In Memorial: Ivanpah

The world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant is a focal point in the conflict of two cultures. It sits on a native American sacred site. In Memorial: Ivanpah

By Roy L Hales

Screen shot 2014-03-18 at 3.43.47 PM“The Ivanpah project is a shining example of how America is becoming a world leader in solar energy,” said Secretary Moniz, in the press release announcing the project’s opening. “As the President made clear in the State of the Union, we must continue to move toward a cleaner energy economy, and this project shows that building a clean energy economy creates jobs, curbs greenhouse gas emissions, and fosters American innovation.”

According to a recent article in the Wall Street journal, Ivanpah may be one of the last giant desert solar project and “costs about four times as much as a conventional natural gas-fired plant, but will produce far less electricity.”

Ivanpah is the world’s largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant and also a  Chemehuevi word meaning “white clay water.”

In 2010, DR James Andre, Director of Sweeny Granite Mountains Desert Research Institute, UC Riverside,  said Ivanpah sits in one of the last large intact desert ecosystems left in the desert South West. He estimated that 5-10% of the plant species there are not even recorded.

“There are a lot of animals out here that need to be protected, nobody is their voice,”  said Reverend Ron Van Fleet, a Mojave leader.

Desert Tortoise – Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster) released into Public Domain
Desert Tortoise – Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster) released into Public Domain

When they moved the desert tortoises to make way for Ivanpah, an estimated 1,300 adult males are believed to have died.

“They did not count the juveniles or the eggs,” said Van Fleet – A mojave leader whose clan symbol is the tortoise.

As a recent California Energy Commission Environmental Impact Analysis admitted, it is not certain that industrial scale desert projects like this do more good than harm: “In order to build the facility, the plants, animals and soil of the native desert acreage are damaged and destroyed, which releases CO2. Presently, there is still dispute among scientists as to how to accurately measure the benefits and the loss…”

The Desert Protective Council and Western Watersheds have filed a lawsuit against the Department of Interior for failing “to analyze more environmentally sound alternatives to large-scale remote desert solar development, such as rooftop solar and distributed generation (DG) in the already built environment and on contaminated lands landfills and mine sites, as is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Indeed, the above alternatives were also supported by the administration’s own Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in their Re-Powering American Lands Paper.”

Ivanpah is also a place that the Mojave and Chemehuevi peoples consider sacred. According to Van Fleet, there are 7 or 8 ancient alters there, dedicated to the wind, fire, flesh, corn etc. One of them is depicted in the foreground of the picture at the top of this page. Behind it are two girls, holding a sign that says “This Place Matters.”

Ivanpah has been on the California Independent System Operator’s list of “curtailed and non-operational” power plants for months. It had “an effective 79 percent downtime rate” during January and the problems continued into early February.

“The plant has been plagued by problems ranging from a surprising number of Threatened desert tortoises on the site, to apparent solar flux injury to migrating birds, to a series of small fires that broke out when operators first aimed heliostats at the towers,” wrote San Diego columnist Chris Clark.

“Now that the project’s completed, with a formal opening ceremony scheduled for the second week in February, the project has almost inadvertently been designated as an experimental solar flux wildlife laboratory. Designer BrightSource Energy has asked the California energy Commission to suspend hearings on its larger Palen Solar Electric Generating System until data on wildlife injuries from Ivanpah can be collected and analyzed.”

Looking west towards the Ivanpah's three boiler towers - Flickr: Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, Craig Dietrich photo, Courtesy Wikipedia.
Looking west towards the Ivanpah’s three boiler towers – Flickr: Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, Craig Dietrich photo, Courtesy Wikipedia.

According to the press release announcing it opening, “Ivanpah has the capacity to generate 392 megawatts (MW) of clean electricity – enough to power 94,400 average American homes – most of which will be sold under long-term power purchase agreements to Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison Company. The project is a joint effort by NRG, Google, and BrightSource Energy, and Bechtel served as the engineering, procurement, and construction contractor.”

“Ivanpah is gone,”  said Alfredo Figuerora, whose La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle has been fighting to preserve Native American’s heritage .

The battle continues elsewhere.

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