Over the past two weeks, a coalition of concerned citizens who live and recreate in California's deserts have filed two legal challenges, one against the US Forest Service's approval of the Sunrise Powerlink transmission line, and the other against the Department of the Interior's approval of the Imperial Valley solar power project. These two new lawsuits included, there are a total of 6 challenges against State and Federal approval of destructive projects. In sum, these legal challenges represent a maturing of America's view of renewable energy policy, recognizing that not all renewable energy is "green," especially when large utility-scale projects deprive future generations of America's natural and cultural heritage. Distributed generation (rooftop solar) is a more cost-efficient and democratic way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
California's deserts were under siege last year by energy companies seeking to build several massive solar energy facilities on public land -- over 50 square miles of mostly pristine desert habitat. The Imperial Valley solar project would consume nearly 10 square miles, and permanently destroy or harm sites of cultural significance to local tribes. This new legal challenge represents the third against the project; the first lawsuit was filed by the Quechan Tribe, and the second by another coalition of concerned citizens and Native Americans.
The Sunrise Powerlink transmission line was billed as a necessary development to bring renewable energy produced in California's deserts to the San Diego area. This lawsuit represents the first major legal challenge against the project. The transmission line would cost electricity customers over $2 billion, and would destroy miles of pristine desert, and woodland across Southern California. Ironically, delivering power that far over transmission lines results in the loss of some of the electricity produced, making it more efficient to generate the energy at the "point-of-use" such as power plants much closer to the city, or better yet, rooftop solar or backyard wind turbines.
Federal and State authorities blessed both projects late last year despite Americans' concerns that the projects would spell ecological doom for the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, and wipe out sites of cultural significance. The environmental review process for the solar power projects was rushed in what the Department of the Interior called a "fast track" process, with the aim of helping private companies qualify for taxpayer-backed loan guarantees and grants. With no other recourse, these citizens and organizations have begun to take the only step left in order to correct a misguided and inadequate environmental review process that put a political agenda ahead of the long-term care of America's natural and cultural resources.
The plaintiffs in the two new legal challenges include the Backcountry Against Dumps organization, the Protect Our Communities Foundation, the East County Community Action Coalition, and the Chairwoman of the County of San Diego Boulevard Planning Group. These lawsuits allege faults echoed by other lawsuits, highlighting the rushed and segmented review process. Interior reviewed and approved the Imperial Valley solar project without including a review of the transmission project. Operation of the Imperial Valley solar project would not be possible without the Sunrise Powerlink or similar transmission upgrade, so it was improper to review the Imperial project without consideration of all associated impacts. The approval of the Imperial Valley solar project was also granted without a complete review of the historical resources that would be destroyed, including Native American spiritual and burial sites.
Also over the past two months, Western Watersheds Project filed a challenge against Interior's approval of the Ivanpah Solar Energy Generating System in the Northeastern Mojave Desert, and the Sierra Club challenged California's approval of the Calico Solar power project.