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Originally Published on the ECOreport

Editor’s Note: The ECOreport is pleased to present a unique article by Dr. Allan Hoffman, former senior executive at the Department of Energy, who served under five Presidents between 1978 and 2012, reviewing ECOreport partner, Robert Lundahl’s film, “Who Are My People?”

At the ECOreport, we have been aware that Lundahl’s film captures a key transition in the history of renewable energy, as concentrating solar, which had been developed in the US, began to return in the hands of international firms building large solar facilities in the Mojave desert.

Lundahl ventured to these remote locations to capture responses from Native American elders whose communities and tribal groups have had a connection to the land since time immemorial. The film is about resulting conflicts in values that define renewable energy in its current form, and provide a consultative view about how we implement these technologies today, and in the future.

March 6, 2015--I was invited to review the documentary film “Who Are My People?” because of my professional familiarity with concentrating solar power technologies. I was responsible for the U.S. Department of Energy’s broad range of renewable energy electricity programs for several years during the Clinton Administration. “Who Are My People?” is well worth watching.

It presents the concerns of several Native American (NA) tribes related to the placement of a number of solar power tower generating facilities on federally-owned areas of the Mojave Desert. These locations are administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). The concerns relate to the placement of facilities on sites sacred to the NA tribes and the related destruction of geoglypths and other religious structures and burial sites that are valued parts of their NA culture.

To anticipate where this discussion is going, I would mention that the issues raised in the documentary raise important questions of competing values that often have no easy answers. To use an analogy, I am reminded of the issues raised by the contemporary debate about measles vaccination. Individual freedom issues need to be weighed against larger societal health issues.

To put my review comments in perspective, let me say a few words about the power tower technology and why several business consortia have opted to place solar power tower plants in the California desert. The technology uses mirrors, thousands of them, surrounding an elevated central tower with a receiver at its top. The receiver is heated by the focused sunlight to a very high temperature, on the order of 1,000F.

A heat transfer fluid, pumped molten salt, transfers this heat to water. This creates high pressure and temperature steam that is fed into a steam turbine-generator that produces electricity and waste heat. In this regard the power tower is just like a nuclear or fossil fuel-powered power plant. They are all water boilers and differ only in the source of the heat.

It is also a technology that I like because it is the only renewable energy generating technology that comes with thermal energy storage (via the molten salt), a unique and important capability. Unfortunately, the technology also has a large footprint on the land.

The reason that the cloudless and relatively dry desert region attracts solar power tower companies is the large amount of solar energy that is available and, critically, that unscattered sunlight (also called direct normal radiation) is required as the input to the mirrors so that focussing can take place.

The relative dryness also creates a problem. Water, which is in short supply in most desert regions, is routinely used to cool the hot exhaust streams of water-boiling steam power plants. Water is also not routinely available for the proposed California (CA) power tower projects.

For example, the Ivanpah project built by BrightSource did not receive a construction license from CA until it agreed to use air-cooling instead of water-cooling for its three towers. Air-cooling requires the use of large fans and part of the electrical output of the power plant (8-10%), which imposes an energy and revenue penalty on the plant. Despite this penalty, the Ivanpah plant is moving ahead. One tower is already in operation, feeding power into the grid.

Several other projects have been proposed for the Mojave region, both power tower and wind. The fact that wind projects do not require cooling water is a major advantage.There is a need for non-fossil fuel renewable energy generation that helps to meet growing energy demands that does not put carbon into the atmosphere. Such carbon emissions contribute to global warming and climate change – which have many adverse impacts now and in the future. They also raise intergenerational equity issues.

The complication is that both solar and wind projects are to be located on lands considered sacred by the NA tribes. Cultural artifacts and other cherished cultural values are threatened. There is no way to fully restore a culture once it has been damaged or destroyed.

With regard to the film itself, it is well made with high production values. It is not a balanced presentation of conflicting views, but wasn’t intended to be. What it does do is raise important issues that ultimately come down to conflicting values.

The following opinions reflect my personal internal conflicts. I understand the critical need to move away from our use of fossil fuels and to use of renewable energy as quickly as possible while meeting energy needs. Conversely, I am deeply concerned about how the U.S. federal and state governments have treated our NA tribes historically and to this day.

The NA land in question is owned by the federal government and administered by the BLM on behalf of the federal government. As stated on the BLM website; “The BLM’s multiple-use mission, set forth in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, mandates that we manage public land resources for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide array of natural, cultural, and historical resources, many of which are found in the BLM’s 27 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System.”

The BLM also has a trust responsibility for Native Americans but the concept of trust responsibility is a highly debated issue between the DOI and the tribes. Consultation between BLM and the tribes is supposed to be an important part of that relationship, but the National Congress of American Indians has stated in its Resolution #LNK-12-036:

“Whereas, BLM, as a result of its fast-track process, has failed to conduct meaningful consultation with Tribes, particularly with CRIT (Colorado River Indian Tribes), and has taken actions that violate federal laws which include provisions designed to protect Tribes’ sacred places and cultural resources, such as the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act.”

The fast-track process referred to is DOI’s effort to authorize and expedite the development of utility-scale solar and wind renewable energy projects on federal land managed by BLM.

What all this comes down to in my mind is a clash of values: a people’s religious beliefs and culture (which are hard to argue with) vs larger societal issues related to energy and climate. Not an easy balance to achieve.

Other concerns relate to:

  • BLM’s effectiveness in balancing their energy responsibilities with their trust responsibilities. Some suggest that BLM is the wrong agency to carry out these latter responsibilities
  • the competition facing power tower technology from concentrating photovoltaics (PV) now that PV prices have come way down in recent years.

The economics of solar energy may forestall the further development of large solar power tower generating plants and move the solar action to people’s rooftops as is happening now in Germany and Australia, and soon in the U.S.

Another question is how much pre-construction discussion took place between Ivanpah’s developer BrightSource and the directly affected NA tribes? In my experience too many renewable energy projects have moved ahead in the past with limited pre-project education and open discussion, and this is wrong and often self-defeating. On the other hand, the NA’s are claiming as sacred ground all the areas where NA’s have been buried in addition to the geoglypths and other surface artifacts.

This is problematic in my opinion, as NA’s have to be subject to eminent domain property seizures deemed necessary to satisfy a broader public interest, as are all U.S. citizens. Was an effort made by companies to build around and preserve the geoglypths identified by the local inhabitants? Can any discovered burial sites be moved to preserved areas at a company’s expense?

If the economics prove to be too much for BrightSource and other companies, between the competition from PV and the costs of preservation, then so be it. That’s the way our economic system operates and a reasonable balance must be found between cultural and energy/climate values.

To purchase DVDs of “Who Are My People?” for educational or home use, visit: http://whoaremypeople.com/. Email the filmmaker at robert@studio-rla.com

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