Desert Solar Power Projects Draw Protests

Protestors hold signs at Monday's event | Photo by Donna Charpied, a jojoba farmer that lives next to a proposed project.

When it comes to solar power, a symbol of renewable energy, environmentalists are not all on the same side of the fence. Case in point: last weekend in the Chuckwalla Valley on the eastern end of Joshua Tree National Park where about 45 people gathered to protest a number of planned solar power projects.

Described as kitty litter by some, pristine desert areas are home to a diverse ecosystem of plants and animals, including old growth desert ironwood trees and the endangered desert tortoise. Additionally, new discoveries by archaeologists of possible Native American sacred lands and artifacts could place areas under the Natural Historic Preservation Act.

Nonetheless, several fast-track renewable solar projects are slated for California's desert. The goal is clean energy, which is not disputed, but desert activists question the locations. They would rather see projects go up on disturbed land, such as around California City, the town of Mojave and the Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley.

There's also another suggestion: solar in the built environment and distributed generation. "How many square miles of flat rooftop are in Southern California?" asked Chris Clarke of the Desert Protective Council, which is a member of the Solar Done Right coalition. He says generating power at or near point of use is much more effective, but others say that it is not fast enough and too expensive.

What is fast enough are the massive solar projects in the desert. "The whole Chuckwalla Valley is filled with gigantic solar apps. We just feel more time should have been given to siting them all over," said Laura Cunningham, a wildlife biologist who co-founded Basin and Range Watch. "Everyone thinks the desert is barren or wasteland or lifeless. Our protest was to educate people it is a vibrant ecosystem."

The protest along the 10 freeway also included Native Americans, including a group that filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the Department of the Interior to stop six of the projects. "We have a memorandum of understanding with the BLM for the protection of sacred sites, including geoglyphs that are threatened by Big Solar," explained Alfredo Figueroa, founder of La Cuna de Atzlan. Another lawsuit from a different group was also filed in December.

The debate over solar is far from over as the lawsuits have yet to come to conclusion. And desert activists are planning more protests to educate the public.

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