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Largest US Solar Power Plant Will Be Built On Public Land. Is That A Problem?

The largest solar power plant in the United States will be constructed on federal land northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. The $1 billion project will include battery storage.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the Bureau of Land Management, which is in charge of all federal lands, has signed off on a plan to build the largest solar power plant in the US — 690 megawatts covering 7,100 acres along Interstate 15, about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. There are two other large solar farms already operating in the area. All that remains before the project moves ahead is a final 90-day public comment period. It is expected that the Gemini solar farm will be fully operational in December of 2023.

The $1 billion Gemini project is being developed by Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners and Arevia Power, and will include large scale storage batteries, although few specs about the storage component of the project have been released at this point. It will supply power to NV Energy, Nevada’s largest public utility. NV Energy has signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with the developers and has agreed to pay $38.44 per megawatt-hour for electricity during that period.

David Scaysbrook, co-founder and managing partner of Quinbrook, says, “Gemini plans to showcase at scale what we believe to be one of the most promising technological advances in renewable power. The project will demonstrate the ability to couple solar PV technology with battery storage to capture and use Nevada’s abundant renewable solar resource to deliver low cost power to NV Energy’s customers and keep the lights on long after the sun has set.”

The addition of Gemini and two other solar plus storage projects “allows us to extend the benefits of renewable energy to times when the sun is not shining,” Doug Cannon, NV Energy’s president and chief executive, said in December. “Today’s decision brings the environmental and price benefits of low-cost solar energy to our customers. We are proud to be delivering a renewable energy vision to our customers that also supports Nevada’s economic and sustainability goals.”

Recently, Nevada enacted legislation requiring utilities operating within the state to obtain 50% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030 and 100% by 2050. NV Energy derived 24% of its electricity from renewables in 2018.

The Gemini project “would represent a significant increase in renewable energy capacity for Nevada and the West,” Tim Smith, BLM district manager for southern Nevada, said in a recent news release. “The BLM actively supports the Department of the Interior’s America First Energy Plan, an ‘all of the above’ strategy which supports energy development on public lands,” Smith said.

And therein lies a potential problem for renewable energy advocates and environmental groups. “All of the above” means fracking for natural gas, mining for coal, or drilling for oil could all take place on federal lands and be congruent with BLM land management guidelines. Clean power proponents should be thrilled the Gemini solar park is going forward, but might be less delighted if the BLM announced new permits for fossil fuel projects. But what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. The government giveth and the government taketh away.

Environmentalists are upset that the Gemini project could endanger hundreds of desert tortoises, a species that is fighting back from near extinction. Defenders of Wildlife, the National Parks Conservation Association, and the Sierra Club sent comment letters to the Bureau of Land Management decrying the danger to the animals.

“There is no justification for this project that outweighs the importance of the desert tortoise, its habitat and BLM’s obligations to use its full authority to take actions that will contribute to the recovery of this threatened species,” Jeff Aardahl, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife, wrote in September. The environmental groups would prefer to see rooftop solar systems spread across Las Vegas and solar power plants on degraded lands instead of the Nevada desert.

The conflict between renewable energy and endangered species is a thorny one. Renewable energy advocates must always be sensitive to the needs of the environment instead of running roughshod over the land the way fossil fuel and pipeline companies have always done. We need to be better than the forces of darkness embodied by Koch Industries and the rest of the fossil fuel cabal.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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