A federal judge granted the Quechan Indian Tribe’s request to halt work temporarily on a massive California solar plant under development by NTR’s (NTRb.CO) Tessera Solar.
The move represents something of a roadblock for efforts to bring more solar power to California and the United States and will likely bolster the position of groups fighting to stop construction of solar plants around the Southwest.
Last year, just three new utility-scale solar plants serving the state came online, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Now, there are more than 40 with contracts or pending contracts with the state’s utilities under development.
While fostering renewable energy has become an important federal and state goal, proposed plants are meeting increasing resistance from groups that believe the plants will do irreparable harm to threatened or endangered plants and animals, and in this case historic areas.
United States District Judge Larry Burns ruled late on Wednesday that the federal government failed to consult adequately with the tribe before approving the planned solar plant, which is slated for tribal lands in the Imperial Valley, near California’s border with Mexico. “Tessera Solar is deeply disappointed with the federal court’s ruling last night,” said Robert Lukefahr, CEO of Tessera Solar, in a statement. “This ruling sets back our ability to provide clean, renewable power to Southern California and delays our ability to bring jobs and economic development” to the region, which suffers from particularly high unemployment.
In part, that deadline was designed to ensure the plants would qualify for a stimulus grant that was set to expire Dec. 31. But now it seems likely that Congress will extend the grant program by another year. Deadlines notwithstanding, “government agencies are not free to glide over requirements imposed by Congressionally-approved statutes and duly adopted regulations,” Judge Burns wrote in his order. He further noted that the Department of the Interior, the key defendant in the tribe’s suit, helped draft the requirements at issue. Congress and the DOI “could have made these consulting requirements less stringent, but they didn’t,” he wrote.
Burial areas and other significant landmarks are scattered across the proposed plant’s site.