Los Angeles Sells Out Manzanar, Again

What does it say about our respect for the past that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) is willing to ignore empty rooftops and parking lots within L.A. city limits - perfectly capable of hosting solar panels - to instead build a massive solar plant right across from the historic site of the first Japanese American internment camp built in 1942? 

As a place, the desert holds a lot of meaning for many people, each of whom holds a different perspective of the desert as an individual.  A peaceful getaway for city-dwellers, a terrain whose story is told in Native American salt songs of spiritual significance, and a place of bittersweet hardship for explorers and miners who sought their fortunes in an unforgiving landscape.   Our perspectives of the desert can be bundles of emotion as varied as the topography and wildlife that calls the desert home.

The desert tells our story as individuals, but also as a society - the good and the bad.  One of those stories is about the internment of Japanese during World War II, including at Manzanar in the Owens Valley.  On February 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 and paved the way for the Secretary of War to relocate over 110,000 Japanese Americans to ten camps in remote corners of the United States.  Nearly 11,000 were held at Manzanar, tucked in a desert valley between the Sierra and the Inyo mountain ranges.

Not allowed to take photographs of the guard towers that looked down at the Manzanar camp, Ansel Adams decided to take photos from the guard towers, capturing the perspective of the oppressor over the internees.  Photo by Ansel Adams, from the Library of Congress collection, via the Densho Digital Archive.
The army leased the land for the camp at Manzanar from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) for $25,000 per year from 1942 to 1945.  LADWP was loathe to give up the land; Los Angeles was concerned the Japanese interned at the camp would sabotage its water supply, according to Karen Piper's Left in the Dust: How Race and Politics Created a Human and Environmental Tragedy in L.A.

By the time Japanese internees arrived at Manzanar in March 1942, Los Angeles had already spent decades buying up land and water rights in the sprawling Owens Valley to satiate the growing metropolis over 200 miles away.  By the early 1930s, the town of Manzanar folded beneath the weight of Los Angeles after LADWP purchased farms and water rights that once supported the town's economy.  In many ways, the economy that LADWP suffocated at Manzanar and elsewhere in the Owens Valley was also built on oppression.  Settlers in the Owens Valley fought with the Paiute tribe to seize water rights and land, prompting the U.S military to intervene on behalf of the settlers and eventually relocate many Paiute away from the lands they had irrigated and tended for centuries.

As a society, we have layered stories of human tragedy discordantly on top of the serene desert landscape of the Owens Valley.  And we're not done yet.

Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch

Los Angeles came for the water, and now it wants to tap the Owens Valley for its sunshine, wastefully and inefficiently ignoring better places to generate clean energy within its own city limits.  LADWP wants to build the 2.5 square mile Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch just across the valley from the Manzanar National Historic Site.  The term "ranch" adds a bucolic connotation to what will actually be am industrial-scale sea of metal and silicon surrounded by chain-link fence, disrupting the greasewood scrub habitat that currently provides a seemingly monotonous, but placid view from the confines of Manzanar.  An industrial-scale energy facility, like any other modern development so close to Manzanar, will alter the character and feel of a place that was chosen for its isolation.

[click on image to expand] This Google Earth image shows the layout of the proposed LADWP Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch project in relation to the nearby Manzanar National Historic Site.
As energy expert Bill Powers notes in written comments submitted to LADWP, the city would be better off generating solar energy from rooftops and parking lots within Los Angeles city limits.  From a technical perspective, hundreds of solar panels spread out over a wide area would be less susceptible to variations in output caused by intermittent cloud cover than the single, concentrated solar array that would be built across from Manzanar.   From a social perspective, investing in distributed generation such as rooftop solar would allow Los Angeles to invest in its own community, instead of tearing apart a community and ecosystem far away.

Better Alternatives

According to a study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation,  rooftops in Los Angeles could generate up to 22,984 megawatts of clean, solar generated electricity during the day.  That's enough to meet half of California's energy demand, and far more than the amount that will be generated by the destructive project LADWP is proposing in the Owens Valley.   For the sake of convenience, I am including some Google Earth images of rooftops and parking lots within L.A. city limits that could host some of the solar panels that LADWP currently plans to install across from Manzanar.

The new Bradley International Terminal at LAX is a shimmering behemoth that reflects the sun's energy back into the atmosphere, when it could be absorbing that energy and converting it into electricity with solar panels, instead.  What better way to drown some of the guilt of carbon-intensive air travel than to be welcomed by a sea of rooftop solar panels?
The vast swath of car rental facilities and parking lots around LAX provide ample opportunities for solar panels. Hertz has already installed some solar panels over a parking lot nearby, but obviously there is room for improvement.

The school on the left side of this image has solar panels over part of its parking lot.  But plenty of other parking lots and rooftops lie in wait of more panels.  And check out the rooftops of the nearby homes - with solar garden policies and an expansion of L.A's feed-in-tariff to benefit residential rooftop systems, these barren rooftops could be put to use, improving real estate values and create local jobs.
Plenty of empty rooftops on warehouses, homes, and shopping centers, not to mention large parking lots.  Let's expand the feed-in-tariff and give our local community a fair return for generating clean energy within city limits.

For an example of how to take advantage of the spaces in our city to generate clean energy, check out Arizona State University's distributed solar generation, with over 20 megawatts of solar panels installed across its campus in Phoenix!


Follow this link to sign the Manzanar Committee's petition demanding LADWP drop its plans to build industrial-scale solar across from the Manzanar site, and urging LADWP to instead consider solar projects within L.A. city limits.


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