While the efforts for rural development are often well-intentioned, they can sometimes get mired in debate and conflict within the communities they’re meant to serve. But one thing is clear: rural communities, particularly in Nevada, are seen as an opportunity to jump-start the green energy transition.
Perhaps no better example of this is Greenlink Nevada, NV Energy’s multibillion dollar transmission project currently undergoing permitting review with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM said it expects to publish a draft environmental impact statement by mid-year 2023, which the agency has yet to release.
Proposed to connect nearly 600 miles of Nevada backcountry, Greenlink would create two new transmission lines. The first, Greenlink West, would connect substations between Las Vegas and Yerington, while Greenlink North is proposed to connect Ely and Yerington. Both transmission lines would then connect to the One Nevada Line, which is already operational between Ely and Las Vegas.
The transmission project, however, has not been without controversy. Rate payers could see an increase in energy bills to finance the project, and rural communities are calling into question its real objective.
“The initial purpose for Greenlink was to fill Nevada with green energy and hook into a larger triangular grid,” said Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of Basin and Range Watch. “However, what we’ve been getting from the BLM is that the Greenlink would be built primarily to serve the northern tech factories such as Tesla, Amazon, Blockchain, etc., because they’re incredibly large consumers of energy and they need to compensate for [their] growth.”
Increased demand on the grid, as well as a 70% spike in natural gas costs, has already been affecting energy consumers in Nevada. This summer, NV Energy introduced a “time-of-use” plan for consumers to enroll in. This new plan charges consumers four times the usual rate during peak hours of the summer months, while providing discounted rates for usage during off-peak hours, as an attempt to offset these rises in both cost and demand.
These controversies contribute to why Laura Cunningham, California Director of Western Watersheds Project and co-founder of Basin and Range Watch, is also wary of the project. Cunningham asserts Greenlink Nevada really amounts to the “green-washing” of fossil fuel energy development under the guise of combating climate change. The source of her suspicion: the Harry Allen Substation in Apex, outside of Las Vegas.
“There are five natural gas power plants and one substation at Apex, and Greenlink West would hook into that substation,” Cunningham said. “NV Energy is not able to figure out how to get renewable energy fast enough to drive the tech boom. So to me, NV Energy wants to build this 400-mile line down to the natural gas plants in Las Vegas and then pretend it’s going to be a solar-powered transmission line.”
NV Energy refutes this claim. In response to these accusations of “green-washing,” a spokesperson at NV Energy said the portion of Greenlink connecting to the Harry Allen substation specifically, is “intended to deliver renewable energy to southern Nevada.”
“NV Energy is making efforts to provide clean energy to all its customers,” the spokesperson said. “The Greenlink lines are strategically routed through renewable energy zones, providing grid access that does not currently exist to renewable developers and allowing for potential development of more renewable projects in the future.”
The Sunrise of Solar
The Greenlink Nevada project has, in fact, spawned numerous applications for massive solar projects to provide energy to the line. Since plans for the Greenlink West line were unveiled, the region surrounding the project has seen a skyrocket in demand from solar companies seeking to capitalize on the opportunity.
These are not small solar projects, either. In a study published by BTU Analytics, a research firm for the fossil fuels and natural gas industry, the Greenlink West line alone has generated some of the largest solar projects ever proposed. Taken together, the ten largest proposed projects would develop over 120,000 acres of land and provide 25 GW of energy to the line, were they to be approved.
The onslaught of solar development applications, however, has raised concerns that the BLM may not be able to keep up and consider each project with the care that’s required.
“The BLM has this avalanche of solar applications continuously coming in, [making] Nevada a free-for-all,” Cunningham said. “The solar developers and utilities driving the [Greenlink] transmission project don’t talk with the communities or the local governments. There may be national environmental groups behind the scenes quietly talking with the industry and the federal government, but rural communities are not included.”
In a written response to the Sierra Nevada Ally, the BLM stated that it remains, “committed to responsible development of renewable energy on our public lands and to carry out robust NEPA, which allows for public input at multiple stages throughout the process. BLM Nevada has established Renewable Energy Coordination Offices to enhance the permitting coordination for wind, solar and geothermal energy proposals on public land. The BLM has aligned its existing staffing expertise and has been hiring additional qualified staff to focus on the renewable energy priority workload.”
Yet, rural communities are becoming increasingly wary of these projects were they to move forward, as even renewable energy projects like solar can be detrimental to rural communities, their economies and their surrounding environment.
Many of these communities rely on recreation and ecotourism as an economical lifeline to their way of life. Advocates say that any type of development, whether renewable energy or not, can inherently alter the landscape by causing fugitive dust, groundwater depletion, wildlife population declines and reduced access to public lands, just to name a few.
Large development projects also often come hand-in-hand with a promise of jobs, which advocates like Cunningham suggest should also be considered with caution.
“There is a little boom of union workers coming in and constructing the solar projects,” Cunningham said. “But then the operational staff can be as minimal as two people that remotely operate the solar project from out of state. So the job situation conflicts with recreational and ecotourism jobs, which are gradually growing in rural Nevada.”
In a statement, NV Energy has downplayed these concerns by emphasizing the number of jobs – beyond construction – that will also be “indirectly” created from the Greenlink Nevada project. According to the project’s web page, Greenlink will generate $690 million in economic activity.
“An economic and fiscal impact analysis estimates Greenlink Nevada will create nearly 4,000 construction jobs,” an NV energy spokesperson said. “In addition to the construction jobs, the economic and fiscal impact analysis estimates that Greenlink Nevada will support more than 2,000 indirect jobs – primarily through professional and business services. NV Energy hopes that Nevada residents will take advantage of these employment opportunities.”
So in the accelerated push for renewable energy to confront a rapidly changing climate, rural communities are often left to wonder if massive renewable energy projects are the appropriate solution. Instead, some advocates suggest that alternative solutions – ones that might mitigate both the environmental and economic harm to rural communities – do exist.
“We are definitely for solar and other renewable energies, but we don’t like the utility model of gigantic high voltage transmission lines [connecting] remote desert solar projects,” Cunningham said. “We need better policies that first encourage distributed generation, which includes rooftop solar, parking lot canopy solar, battery storage and local micro-grids. Then if you have to have utility-scale solar projects, they should go on disturbed lands, old agricultural lands, places that have already been [disturbed]. Then at the bottom of the list, [develop] public land ecosystems.”
Funding and Competition
Now, two new federal funding programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office are seemingly attempting to do just that. The NewERA and PACE programs, respectively, are providing loans and grants sourced from the Inflation Reduction Act so rural communities can develop renewable energy projects on their own terms.
“These two programs will expand clean, affordable and reliable energy throughout rural America,” said Lucas Ingvoldstad, State Director of Nevada for USDA Rural Development. “The goal is to enhance the quality of life in rural communities. So, we would rely on the rural electric co-ops to identify what [projects would] look like, because each rural electric co-op challenge or need is going to be different.”
Funding from these programs are dispersed at the federal level and are not state-specific, meaning rural communities in Nevada will have to compete with not only other rural communities in the Silver State, but also across the country.
While both programs are tailored toward facilitating renewable energy development in rural communities, each is designed in a different way.
While the PACE program is forgiving up to 60% of loans for renewable energy projects, the NewERA program allocates $9.7 billion from the Inflation Reduction Act to rural electric co-ops in the form of loans, grants and other financial assistance. Rural electric co-ops are the only eligible applicant for NewERA funding because they are not part of a larger utility, and as such are designed to serve smaller populations directly.
Ingvoldstad suggests that by allocating funding directly to rural electric co-ops, the populations they serve can be less reliant on large transmission projects. Instead, they can source their energy locally.
“When you think of renewable generation, it’s easy to automatically think of utility-scale, but rural electric production is much smaller – five acres versus thousands of acres,” Ingvoldstad said. “Rural customers are located in a difficult place to deliver transmission, so there’s an opportunity for them to build a solar project to power their homes and stores. The loose term we often hear is, ‘micro-grids,’ a smaller grid that is self-reliant on generation, whether renewable or otherwise, and we have been approached by a variety of different folks in that concept.”
While the public lands commonly associated with rural Nevada are increasingly drawing attention for renewable energy development – from industry and government agencies alike – there is still a significant barrier: money.
“Financing can be a hurdle, particularly in the world we’re living in right now as interest rates have increased,” Ingvoldstad said. “If we’re able to provide funding for these communities so they don’t need to tap into the grid, or create new transmission or additional capacity on those lines, they could do something that is located much closer to their communities. Smaller projects are less expensive and the [rural] consumer-base is much smaller than other utilities, so you don’t need as much power to ensure that the lights come on.”
But Ingovldstad asserts that successful implementation of these funding programs remains contingent on input from the rural communities they are meant to serve.
“We will rely on our federal partners on the permitting side to ensure that site selection of these projects are minimizing environmental damage,” Ingvoldstad said. “If there’s a permitting agency involved, like the BLM, by no means will we bypass any sort of permitting requirements, including scheduling stakeholder meetings to garner input from the communities that these projects will be potentially placed in. We want to work with these rural communities to identify what locations work and which ones don’t.”
To be clear, Greenlink Nevada is not directly related to the NewERA and PACE funding programs. But altogether, these various initiatives represent the accelerated push to spur economic growth in rural communities through renewable energy development.
Yet, the core issue remains the same: greater transparency, engagement and communication with rural communities will be an increasingly important step if the development of renewable energy projects are to move forward.