Local Group Wants Renewable Development in L.A., Not Owens Valley

Monument at Manzanar | Photo: ken-ichi/Flickr/Creative Commons License

California's second-largest county wants to designate almost ten percent of its land for renewable energy development, and a cultural protection group is taking up metaphorical arms against the core of the proposed policy. In doing so, it's turning NIMBYism on its head.

In Inyo County's 2013 Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment, published Wednesday on the Inyo County Planning department website, County planners describe 14 "Renewable Energy Development Areas" (REDAs) in Inyo that cover 609,502 acres of mostly public land. That's more than 950 square miles, more than nine percent of the total land mass of the county, an area about the size of Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Jose combined.

About 190 square miles of that total would be in the scenic core of Inyo County: the Owens Valley. The Owens Valley and Owens Lake REDAs would make up 170 square miles of that in an nearly unbroken band running 40 miles between Independence and Olancha. And a group already fighting a proposed 1.8 square mile solar facility near the site of an historic wartime internment camp is calling on the county to remove the Owens Valley from consideration for landscape-level renewable energy development.

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The Manzanar Committee, which formed in 1970 to preserve the Owens Valley's history of internment of U.S. citizens during World War II, has been working to oppose the Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project, which the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power wants to build on 1,200 acres near the historic Manzanar Internment Camp, now a National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service.

As mentioned before here at KCET, the project would potentially destroy as-yet uncatalogued camp artifacts held in an old landfill on the site.

Possibly of greater impact, the industrial facility would also permanently alter the sense of isolation felt by internees at Manzanar in the 1940s, transforming the beautiful but severe landscape of the central Owens Valley into an industrial area. That would make it a lot harder to convey to modern visitors just what it felt like to be rounded up based solely on your ancestry and imprisoned at Manzanar.

The project would thus undo much of the work the camp's survivors, their descendants, and their supporters have done to keep Manzanar's memory alive. Despite the incredibly moving interpretative exhibits the Park Service makes available at Manzanar's visitor center, the impact of the place would be a lot different with an industrial-scale solar facility occupying much of the viewshed a few miles across the valley.

It often happens, when a group bands together to defend a particular place against development of one kind or another, that they declare victory if the project is simply sited somewhere else. Move the proposed airport, or freeway extension, or landfill to some other place, and activists working to defend the place it was moved from often breathe a sigh of relief and turn to something else. The phenomenon is so well-established that it has an acronym: NIMBY. Not In My Back Yard.

The problem, of course, is that everywhere is someone's back yard.

Approximate extent and location of Inyo County proposed REDAs, in red. Location of Manzanar indicated by black circle. Click to expand. | Map: Google Maps/KCET

With a focus as well-defined as protecting Manzanar's viewshed from inappropriate industrial intrusions, you might expect groups like the Manzanar Committee to set their goals in that somewhat limited fashion: have LADWP move the project somewhere out of sight.

But the Manzanar Committee isn't doing that. Instead, the group is looking at the whole landscape of the Owens Valley, that vast majority of whose 75-mile length isn't visible to observers at Manzanar.

In formal comments submitted to Inyo County in response to the Renewable Energy General Plan Amendment, Manzanar Committee Co-Chair Bruce Embrey makes it very clear that industrial renewable energy development in the Owens Valley runs counter not only to the goal of protecting and interpreting Manzanar, but to the welfare of Inyo County as a whole.

According to Embrey, the Manzanar Committee;

is vehemently opposed to any development that would interfere with the operation, goals and purpose of the Manzanar NHS, including forever marring its view shed.... Further, we fail to understand the logic behind allowing large-scale solar or wind power projects in the Owens Valley, where your mostly pristine, open lands, along with forest areas, beautiful lakes and streams and other outdoor wonders, would be destroyed forever by massive renewable energy facilities. With Inyo County's economy based on tourism, this makes no sense at all.

Embrey also points out the increased demand for water that would stem from washing solar panels and reminds the County planners that utility-scale solar fields generally offer minimal long-term employment. And he offers what the Committee sees as a better alternative:

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, let me state for the record that the Manzanar Committee is not opposed to solar energy, or other renewable energy sources. In fact, we applaud Inyo County's support of projects that would help us move away from fossil fuels. However, the Owens Valley is the wrong place for such development. Indeed, placing massive solar facilities in the Owens Valley is a poor choice while other options exist. In fact, centralized, industrial solar facilities are not a wise use of resources at this time, as centralized solar farms are less efficient and more expensive than distributed, rooftop solar systems.

Embrey then goes on to cite the oft-quoted Luskin Center study that shows L.A. County rooftops could generate half of California's peak electrical demand, and suggests that solar development could better be focused there than in Inyo County's tourist-attracting landscape.

In other words, the Los Angeles-based Manzanar Committee is doing the opposite of what NIMBYs do, by saying "we'd rather you put this in our backyards, and on our rooftops, and on our parking lots."

And in the process, they're speaking out to defend not only the legacy and memory of the more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry unjustly imprisoned at Manzanar and other camps throughout the U.S., but the livelihoods of the other residents of the Owens Valley, human and non-human, whose homes would be forever changed by making the county an industrial energy zone.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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