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Quechan Tribe Says 'Not So Fast' on Large Solar Power Plant

Artist''s rendering, Palen Solar Electric Generating System | Photo: BrightSource Energy

Comment on a proposed large solar energy installation is coming in after the California Energy Commission (CEC) published its initial assessment, and one of the most striking pieces of feedback comes from a nearby tribe. Formal comment on the CEC's Preliminary Staff Assessment for the Palen Solar Electric Generating System by the Historic Preservation Office of the Quechan Indian Tribe in Yuma was posted to the CEC's website Wednesday, and that comment minces no words about the project, or about the regulatory process that they feel is pushing the project along despite opposition.

The Quechan, currently based on and near the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation straddling the state line near Yuma, Arizona, traditionally traveled the area in Riverside County that would be occupied by the Palen project. Along with other local tribes, they hold many places in the area as important to their culture and religion.

The Palen project is proposed by Palen Solar Holdings, a joint venture of BrightSource Energy and Abengoa. The facility would generate up to 500 megawatts of power by using tens of thousands of mirrored heliostats on 5,200 acres of public lands to focus solar energy onto boilers atop two 750-foot power towers, each less than two miles from Interstate 10 between Blythe and Desert Center in Riverside County.

The project was approved by the CEC in 2010 under different ownership and with a radically different design, and the current round of agency evaluation -- technically known as a petition to amend the CEC's original certification of the project -- is intended to determine what changes in the plant's operating agreement with the state might be required due to its redesign as a power tower facility.

Palen Solar Holdings has made it known that the partnership is counting on a speedy approval of the amended project in order to meet lenders' deadlines. During a June 3 conference of involved parties, Palen's attorney Scott Galati objected to CEC staff requests for additional surveys of cultural resources on the project site, saying that such studies threatened to delay the project to the point where the companies might not be able to close financing by the end of 2013, threatening the possibility of firing up the plant on schedule.

In its comments this week, the Quechan Historic Preservation Office objected to that rush in no uncertain terms, saying that the applicant's need for speed threatened to steamroll its far less well funded opponents.

The fast-tracking by BLM and the tight schedule adhered to by CEC do not allow adequate time for the planning and protection of our cultural resources. Once again the laws and guidelines created by the government and agencies do not address these issues or give us a voice. There is a real disparity between the resources we have compared to the client, BLM, or CEC. When the client pays BLM ½ to ¾ of a million dollars to complete all the regulatory requirements -- we cannot compete with that. Our evidence: oral histories, stories, songs, artifacts (few remaining) weigh very little... When we question or disagree, another report is prepared to "demonstrate good faith effort" and refute us.

As if to underscore the disparity in resources available to the participants, a series of storms took out power to the Fort Yuma Reservation for much of the week, a fact that the tribe's comments played up:

We are late at responding this week because we have been without electricity and internet since Thursday. This uneven battle more than meets the spirit of [an] environmental justice [issue], but nothing has been done to level the playing field. This is why it is so difficult to keep fighting to protect our heritage, because our requests or comments are deferred, delayed, disregarded, or ignored, especially by BLM. We do not have any of the original archeological reports to review. And until recently were not even invited to participate in the surveys. The one survey that CEC was going to perform around the view shed with our elders was deferred by BLM. The attitude is to "proceed with the project at all costs, because we can always mitigate later."

The Tribe is asking for more time to survey local cultural sites and anthropologists' reports, for the CEC to prepare Ethnographic Studies on the setting and viewshed as part of the project's assessment rather than as later mitigation, and for greater Tribal input in the project's compliance, monitoring, and mitigation plans.

The Tribe is also suggesting the project be redesigned as a photovoltaic generating station on the grounds that such a configuration is less visually obtrusive. As BrightSource has staked its future on its power tower technology, Palen Solar Holdings is unlikely to seize on that last suggestion.

The CEC has scheduled a formal evidentiary hearing on the project on September 16.

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