Indy Environment: New solar project raises old challenges about siting renewables in the Mojave Desert


As Nevada works to increase clean energy production, one of the biggest roadblocks is where to put large-scale solar arrays and wind turbines in a state where the U.S. government manages about 85 percent of the land. The challenges around siting new projects on federal public land, especially in the Mojave Desert, make crafting renewable policy in Carson City look easy.

The most recent example: A massive solar facility slated for Southern Nevada.

If completed, the Gemini Solar Project would be the largest solar facility in the United States, spanning about 7,100 acres on federal public land about 30 miles outside of Las Vegas. In a statement, the project proponent said: “Development of renewable energy has become a priority in Nevada and across the nation, and the Gemini Solar Project will have a positive impact in meeting our energy needs while reducing our carbon footprint.” But that comes with a tradeoff.

Some conservationists are concerned that the arrays, which would be sited outside of designated Solar Energy Zones, would block tortoise habitat and degrade the visual character of the land. According to an environmental analysis open for public comment, the proposal could displace about 200 desert tortoises, a protected species that faces threats across the Mojave Desert.

As the Review-Journal reported this week, two conservation groups are attempting to stop the solar project by using the Endangered Species Act. They said they don’t oppose renewable energy — though they would rather see it on rooftops — but the tradeoff here is unacceptable.

Yet many groups have decided to stay out of the public fight. Some are likely reviewing the environmental analysis, released on Friday. That analysis contemplates leaving some habitat intact during construction through a technique that land managers described as “mowing.”

But there is also a definite tension within the groups over balancing conservation and climate change. It is hard to oppose a clean energy project when climate change is looming and with a grid that historically favors centralized power production over dispersed rooftop solar. Even a slight warming trend could disturb an ecosystem as sensitive as the Mojave Desert. In fact, researchers have already attributed declines in Mojave Desert birds to the changing climate.

There is a lot of recent history to unpack, too. Many of these groups came together to support federal plans directing large-scale renewable projects to brownfields and less sensitive land. Still, federal land managers are processing applications for grandfathered projects outside of those areas, and there is a sense that they are lacking a comprehensive development plan.  

I’ve written recently about the challenges of siting renewable energy projects, and I’ll write more about this. With presidential candidates pushing more solar and wind development on public land, this is going to come up a lot. There are few easy answers and many tradeoffs.

The wildlife refuge: Floating an interesting proposal, The Las Vegas Sun editorial board called on Attorney General Aaron Ford to sue the federal government if the military moves forward with its proposed expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range, which would further restrict access and affect the management of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge, the largest refuge in the lower 48 states. Ford’s office declined to comment on whether he was looking at that option.

Last week, The Nevada Current wrote about Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto questioning a Trump nominee on this issue. She said the Department of Interior, which houses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and manages the refuge, has been largely silent on the issue. “I am asking for you to help, to come to the table and sit with us and figure out how we can address it,” she said to the nominee for assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks. The nominee, Robert Wallace, said he was open to learning about the issue and trying to chart a collaborative path forward, noting that “partnerships are easy to say and hard to do, but I am committed to making them work.”

The mountain: Another day and another hearing on Yucca Mountain. Ahead of a hearing in the House of Representatives today, we reported that Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote a letter conveying his opposition to storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain about 90 miles outside of Las Vegas. “I am totally opposed to any legislative effort to restart the Yucca Mountain project,” he wrote.

The water table: A mining company looking to extract molybdenum outside of Eureka settled a long-standing water dispute that has helped inform the Supreme Court’s thinking on modern-day water law and mitigation, The Elko Daily Free Press reported. The company, General Moly, said in a statement in May that it resolved the final protests from a ranching family over the mine’s plans to pump groundwater. The company, which entered into a settlement with Eureka County, will initially pay the ranchers $1 million in a trust account with potential future payments as the project proceeds. The company, whose mine is expected to spur economic development but has also been challenged by environmentalists, said it is on the “cusp” of being fully permitted.

The river: Everyone is watching 2020. But if you are one of the 40 million people supported by the Colorado River in the arid Southwest, the year to watch might be 2026. That’s the deadline for water managers on the Colorado River to agree to new guidelines for how to operate the watershed’s Rube-Goldberg machine of dams and diversions heading into a more arid future.

In Boulder last week, academics, environmentalists and water managers from the seven states in the Colorado River Basin met to discuss what the future might look like. A fellow reporter had a great Twitter thread on what’s on the table, but the bottom line appeared to be figuring out a way to work with less and making mutual sacrifices in a system that is looking to move beyond the geographic and historical differences have often stood in the way in the past. But it’s easier said than done. A big question answered in an excellent public radio series this week: Will the states of Colorado, Wyoming and Utah pursue more diversions? It asks: What’s the final straw?

As for Nevada, Las Vegas is already consuming — on net — less than its allotted amount under the Colorado River Compact. Thanks to years of aggressive conservation measures and water recycling, water managers have reduced overall water use even as the region has expanded. It has also allowed the water authority to push off the controversial pipeline to pump groundwater from Eastern Nevada. After three years of personal conflicts, I finally made it out to the Snake Valley Festival last weekend, the annual gathering protesting the pipeline. Everyone made a point to mention that it’s been 30 years, and no pipeline has been built. It will be interesting to see what the conversations are like on future supplies going forward prior to the 2026 deadline.

The heat: The Desert Research Institute is out with new research linking increasingly extreme temperatures to heat-related deaths in Las Vegas. The takeaway of the Reno Gazette Journal: “The results and other recent research show more people at risk from exposure to extreme heat. It’s a problem that’s expected to get worse as climate change from heat-trapping carbon emissions created by burning fossil fuels and the ‘heat island effect’ that’s exacerbated by development conspire to make cities even hotter… The DRI findings come as another study led by Eunice Lo of the University of Bristol showed how slowing the rate of human-caused climate change would reduce the number of heat deaths by thousands across 15 U.S. cities.”

Clips from the news:

  • As populations of ravens grow in part because of human disturbance, they add to the threats facing tortoises. Some biologists are responding with drones. (L.A. Times)
  • A trial started this week to determine whether the city of Reno is liable for the 2017 flooding of Swan Lake, which is surrounded by homeowners. (Reno Gazette Journal)
  • Gov. Sisolak met with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on Monday. Sisolak said in a tweet that they “discussed the serious threat wildfires pose to Nevada.” (Twitter)
  • Bat Blitz! Wildlife biologists completed an annual survey of the only mammal that can fly across 28 survey sites. The Review-Journal has a great story with cool visuals. (RJ)
  • Big weed had a big week in Nevada. A company in North Las Vegas announced that its 455,000 square-foot greenhouse finished its first cannabis harvest. (KTVN)
  • BLM to hold hearing on use of vehicles, aircraft for wild horse round-ups. The BLM will hold it at the Suncoast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on June 25 (News Release)





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