BLYTHE, Calif. -- One of California's showcase solar energy projects, under construction in the desert east of Los Angeles, is being threatened by a deadly outbreak of distemper among kit foxes and the discovery of a prehistoric human settlement on the work site.
The $1 billion Genesis Solar Energy Project has been expedited by state and federal regulatory agencies that are eager to demonstrate that the nation can build solar plants quickly to ease dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming.
Instead, the project is providing a cautionary example of how the rush to harness solar power in the desert can go wrong -- possibly costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and dealing an embarrassing blow to the Obama administration's solar initiative.
Genesis had hoped to be among the first of 12 approved solar farms to start operating in Southern California deserts. To do so, it had to meet certain deadlines to receive federal assistance. The 250-megwatt plant, being built on federal Bureau of Land Management land 25 miles west of Blythe, is backed by an $825 million Department of Energy loan guarantee.
Native Americans, including the leaders of a nearby reservation, are trying to have Genesis delayed or even scuttled because they say the distemper outbreak and discovery of a possible Native American cremation site show that accelerated procedures approved by state and federal regulators failed to protect wildlife and irreplaceable cultural resources.
The problems threaten the entire project, said Michael O'Sullivan, senior vice president of development for Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources, one of the largest renewable energy suppliers in North America and the builder of Genesis. The project is to start producing power by 2014. If too many acres are deemed off-limits to construction, "the project could become uneconomical," O'Sullivan said.
Plans for Genesis call for parabolic-trough solar thermal technology to create enough energy to power 187,500 homes. But last fall, as crews began installing pylons and support arms for parabolic mirrors across 1,950 acres of land leveled by earthmovers, the company ran into environmental and cultural obstacles -- the kind that critics say could probably have been avoided by more rigorous research and planning.
"The issues facing Genesis underline the notion that if you do something quick and dirty, you are going to wind up with big mistakes and unintended consequences," said Lisa Belenky, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Kit foxes became an issue at the site in late August, when two animals died. At the time, biologists assumed the foxes succumbed to dehydration in an area where summer temperatures soar to 118 degrees. On Oct. 5, Genesis crews discovered another fox carcass and sent it to state Fish and Game veterinarians for a necropsy.
At the time, the company was using "passive hazing" strategies approved by state and federal biologists to force kit foxes off the land before grading operations began in November. To scatter the kit foxes, workers removed sources of food and cover, sprinkled urine from coyotes -- a primary fox predator -- around den entrances, and used shovels and axes to excavate about 20 dens that had been unoccupied for at least three consecutive days.
By early November, only three active dens remained, but the foxes using them wouldn't budge, raising the risk of construction delays. The California Energy Commission, which has jurisdiction over the project, scrapped the three-day timetable and said the company could destroy dens that had been vacant for 24 hours.
Five days after making that change, the results of the necropsy came back. The fox found Oct. 5 had died of the first case of distemper ever recorded among desert kit foxes. Ultimately, at least seven kit foxes died.
Evidence of a human settlement is of even greater concern to the company. Earthmovers on Nov. 17 churned up grinding stones lying on a bed of charcoal -- possible evidence of an ancient cremation site. In a subsequent meeting with Colorado River Indian Tribes, a federally recognized reservation just east of the work site, Bureau of Land Management officials described the discovery as "unprecedented," tribal leaders said.
The remains are protected by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Work has been halted on 400 acres, or one-fifth of the project's total area, while state and federal archaeologists conduct a detailed assessment.
The discovery did not come as a complete surprise. In 2010 testimony before the state energy commission, archaeologist David S. Whitley warned that Ford Dry Lake, at the southern end of the Genesis site, had been a gathering place for prehistoric people who cremated their dead. Based on surface evidence, at least three locations within the Genesis project area appeared "to represent lake shore village sites that have the potential to contain burials/cemeteries," Whitley said.
To avoid the old lake shore area, NextEra reconfigured the project, moving it about two miles north. However, the company did not follow customary methods for searching the new site for human remains. Instead of using established but costly and time-consuming procedures, NextEra opted for a new, less exacting search method developed by the state energy commission and the BLM to expedite Genesis and three other solar projects.
The energy commission outlined the new method in a Dec. 3, 2009, letter that included a warning: If the search found nothing, but artifacts were discovered later, during construction, the project could be suspended while an exhaustive investigation was performed.
That's what happened. NextEra's search involved digging more than 500 shovel test pits each up to 3 feet deep. It found nothing.
Now the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation is demanding that NextEra halt construction until its own experts can investigate.