Wind War: Tribe Fights 315-MW California Project

Protests by a coalition of environmental groups, tribal representatives, outdoor enthusiasts and others couldn’t derail approval of Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, planned for public lands about 80 miles east of San Diego. Will a lawsuit? That’s the question on the table now.

The U.S. Department of the Interior approved construction of the proposed 112-turbine, 315-megawatt (MW) wind power plant near Ocotillo, Calif., on May 11. Set for installation on more than 10,000 acres of public lands, the project is expected to create up to 350 jobs at peak construction, then generate enough electricity to power 94,500 homes, clean power that will offset close to 288,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases annually.

pattern energy, ocotillo

image via Pattern Energy Group

The Ocotillo wind farm is being developed by Ocotillo Express, a wholly owned subsidiary of Pattern Energy Group. The California Public Utilities Commission has approved a 20-year power purchase agreement for the project with San Diego Gas & Electric.

But there’s a hitch in the plan: On the same day the Interior Department approved the wind farm, around 40 people turned out to protest the project at Pattern’s offices in La Jolla. The protest included representatives from the Desert Protective Council, the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, the Basin and Range Watch and the Quechen Indian Tribe, which says the turbines are slated to be built on a sacred burial site. There are also concerns about environmental harm to desert habitat including Peninsular Big Horn sheep, golden eagles and other wildlife.

Frustrated that the Obama administration decided to allow construction, within days the Quechen Tribe filed a lawsuit [PDF] against the federal government in hopes of halting construction. A hearing was set for Friday, May 18, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California [PDF].

This isn’t the first time the Quechan Tribe and the Obama administration have butted heads on renewable energy development. In late 2010, the tribe  convinced a federal judge to grant a preliminary injunction halting construction of the 709-MW Imperial Valley Solar Project by Tessera Solar. As it turned out, that injunction wasn’t necessary; Tessera and its solar-thermal dish technology were already foundering, the company sold off the project, it lost its state approval [PDF] and little has been heard of it since.