Of the many projects commissioned by US President Barack Obama’s administration to showcase its commitment to renewable energy, few are as grandly futuristic as the multibillion-dollar solar power projects under construction across broad swaths of desert on the California-Arizona border.
But at least two developments, including the US$1 billion, 250 megawatt Genesis Solar near Blythe in the lower Colorado River valley and the Solar Millennium project, are beset with lengthy construction delays, while others are facing legal challenges lodged by environmental groups and Native American groups who fear damage to the desert ecology as well as to ancient rock art and other sacred heritage sites.
Out on the stony desert floor, Native Americans say, are sites of special spiritual significance, specifically involving the flat-tailed horned toad and the desert tortoise.
“This is where the horny toad lives,” says Alfredo Figueroa, a small, energetic man and a solo figure of opposition who could have sprung from the pages of a Carlos Castaneda novel, pointing to several small burrows.
Figueroa is standing several hundred meters into the site of Solar Millennium, a project backed by the Cologne, Germany-based Solar Millennium AG. The firm, which has solar projects stretching from Israel to the US, was last month placed in the hands of German administrators and its assets listed for disposal.
“Of all the creatures, the horny toad is the most sacred to us because he’s at the center of the Aztec sun calendar,” Figueroa says. “And the tortoise also, who represents Mother Earth. They can’t survive here if the developers level the land, because they need hills to burrow into.”
Figueroa, 78, a Chemehuevi Native American and historian with La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, has become one of the most vocal critics of the solar program and expresses some unusually bold claims as to the significance of this valley: He claims it is the birthplace of the Aztec and Mayan systems of belief. He points out the depictions of a toad and a tortoise on a facsimile of the Codex Borgia, one of a handful of divinatory manuscripts written before the Spanish conquest.
On a survey of the 2,400 hectare site Figueroa points out a giant geoglyph, an earth carving he says represents Kokopelli, a fertility deity often depicted as a humpbacked flute player with antenna-like protrusions on his head. Kokopelli, he says, will surely be disturbed if the development here resumes.
The area is known for giant geoglyphs, believed by some to date back 10,000 years. Gesturing toward the mountains, he also describes Cihuacoatl — a pregnant serpent woman — he sees shaped in the rock formations. All of this, he says, amounts to why government-fast-tracked solar programs in the valley, where temperatures can reach 54°C, should be abandoned. It is a matter of their very survival.
“We are traditional people — the people of the cosmic tradition,” Figueroa said. “The Europeans came and did a big number on us. They tried to destroy us, but they were not able to destroy our traditions and it’s because of our traditions and our mythology that we’ve been able to survive. If we’d blended in with the WASPS — the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants — we’d have been lost long ago.”
At the Genesis Solar site, about 32km west, Florida-based NextEra has begun to develop an 810 hectare site. The brackets that would hold the reflecting mirrors stand like sentinels. Backed by an US$825 million US Department of Energy loan, Genesis Solar is planned as a centerpiece of the administration’s renewable energy program, with enough generating capacity to power 187,500 homes.