A “land-rush” of applications for large-scale solar projects, covering roughly 60,000 acres of public lands, including land near and around Death Valley National Park, demonstrates the delicate balance of achieving ambitious green energy goals without compromising local ecosystems and economies. In response to several objections filed by organizations like Basin and Range Watch, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) verbally announced recently that some solar project proposals near the national park will be designated a low-priority status.
“[BLM] has not put anything in writing yet, but that low-priority status essentially means that the application has high-conflict, so they’re not going to process them until after reviewing higher priority applications,” said Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch and former National Park Service Ranger at Death Valley National Park. “The companies probably won’t like [the low-priority status], so they still might appeal it, which they are allowed to do and something we’ve seen happen before.”
The wave of solar project proposals comes on the backdrop of several state and federal legislative initiatives that pave the way for the state of Nevada, and the country writ-large, to quickly develop renewable energy resources to meet ambitious climate-related goals.
“Nevada state law now requires utilities to buy 50% of their energy from renewable sources by 2030,” Emmerich said. “There is also a congressional mandate, signed by the Trump administration in the first COVID bill called the Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, that increases public lands that are available for renewable energy fivefold. So there’s a lot of demand for these lands right now.”
The proposed solar projects would contribute renewable energy to the GreenLink West Transmission Project, a transmission line currently being developed to connect Las Vegas to Yerington, Nevada. GreenLink West is a component of the greater project called GreenLink Nevada, a renewable energy and electrical infrastructure initiative aimed at providing a second, critical statewide transmission connection.
One point of contention is the proximity some of the proposed solar projects have to Death Valley National Park. Three of the projects, covering nearly 15,000 acres worth of public lands along Highway 374, would develop large-scale solar farms near the east entrance of the park.
Another 44,000 acres of solar applications are proposed for lands in the Sarcobatus Flat, which sits directly next to a 150,000-acre section of Death Valley known as the Nevada Triangle.
“When companies file an application, the project often doesn’t end up being as big, but this is still a substantial amount of land, even if they only were to develop half of it,” Emmerich said. “Solar is a low-density energy, so [solar project developers] need a lot of land to compensate for what the more conventional energy plants can generate.”
While developing large-scale renewable energy resources would be beneficial to achieving climate-related goals, there is concern development on these lands would come with too great of an environmental cost.
“A lot of the project sites have very old desert pavement, which may only be just half an inch thick, but can also be hundreds of thousands of years old,” Emmerich said. “It holds all the dust and soil together in a rock layer and when it’s scraped clean by all this heavy equipment, it releases fugitive dust that creates big dust storms. This becomes not only an air quality problem, but a visual and public health problem for visitors and people living in towns near the national parks, in this case, Beatty, Nevada.”
Additional concerns relate to how these projects would affect the delicate ecosystems that exist on the lands in and near the park.
“Bighorn sheep often go into these low valleys to forage in the winter and these projects would require building fences, which would prevent access to that habitat,” Emmerich said. “Solar projects can also mimic lakes which may cause birds to crash into them. This is particularly relevant because there is an avian movement route, or flyway, between Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Amargosa Valley that goes up into the Beatty area, called Oasis Valley.”
Aside from environmental concerns, there are economic concerns as well.
“The road to Chloride Cliff would be closed from the Nevada side,” Emmerich said. “So a lot of folks in Beatty feel these projects will be detrimental to the tourism economy because they’ll be visible from Rhyolite, a famous ghost town that drew over a million visitors in 2020. Tourism is really an economic boost to this little town, so industrializing it with transmission and massive solar projects could actually be really detrimental.”
Therefore, while organizations like Emmerich’s Basin and Range Watch are not necessarily against large-scale solar projects like the ones proposed, they’re advocating more for responsibly developing them in more appropriate locations.
“We should look at other public lands that have already been disturbed,” Emmerich said. “There are many old mine sites in Nevada, even some places that have transmission lines already running and could probably be used to generate a lot of renewable energy.”
Emmerich cites that this concern is nothing new for BLM, who in the past created solar energy zones on public lands specifically for that purpose.
“We didn’t agree with every solar energy zone [BLM designated], but at least they made a credible attempt to try to locate solar development on lands that had lower conflicts,” Emmerich said. “But the point is it’s now too expensive for solar companies to pay these upfront lease fees to apply for projects there, so they end up applying on other public lands, called ‘variant lands.’”
Another alternative Emmerich proposes is capitalizing on opportunities from already-built infrastructure.
“There are plenty of opportunities for solar to go in a built-in environment, like rooftops over parking lot structures,” Emmerich said. “We aren’t against renewable energy at all, we just think there are alternatives to the way it’s being done in Nevada, where it’s really become like a land rush that would really disturb the land and our local economy.”
For Emmerich, it’s all about making the transition to renewable energy as responsible as possible.
“Renewable energy is a really important transition that we need to make, but we need to respect that it can be an industrial nightmare if we don’t put it in the right location and in the correct way,” Emmerich said. “In this case, building a giant solar infrastructure east of Death Valley National Park is going to have impacts on multiple levels and we can meet a lot of those goals without sacrificing this really important national treasure.”
Scott King writes about science and the environment for the Sierra Nevada Ally. He has a Master’s degree in Media Innovation from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a Bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing with a minor in Marketing from Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Scott served for two years as a literacy instructor with the Peace Corps in the community of Gouyave, Grenada. Support his work.
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