Solar Power's Land Grab Hits Snag: Environmentalists

Mojave Desert residents say they support clean energy, but not giant projects, citing threat to tortoises and recreation

BY JIM CARLTON, published June 6, 2021 in the Wall Street Journal

MOAPA VALLEY, Nev.—This windswept desert community is full of clean energy supporters including Suzanne Rebich, an airline pilot who recently topped her house with 36 solar panels. About 200 homes generate their own solar energy and a quarter of the local electricity supply comes from hydroelectric power.

All the same, many here are dead set against a planned solar plant atop the Mormon Mesa, which overlooks this valley 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Slated to be the biggest solar plant in the U.S., the Battle Born Solar Project by California-based Arevia Power would carpet 14 square miles—the equivalent of 7,000 football fields—with more than a million solar panels 10 to 20 feet tall. It would be capable of producing 850 megawatts of electricity, or roughly one-tenth of Nevada’s current capacity.

“It will destroy this land forever,” Ms. Rebich, 33, said after riding her bicycle on the 600-foot high mesa.

Across the U.S., more than 800 utility-scale solar projects are under contract to generate nearly 70,000 megawatts of new capacity, enough to power more than 11 million homes, equivalent to Texas and then some. More than half this capacity is being planned for the American Southwest, with its abundance of sunshine and open land.

These large projects are increasingly drawing opposition from environmental activists and local residents who say they are ardent supporters of clean energy. Their objections range from a desire to keep the land unspoiled to protection for endangered species to concerns that their views would no longer be as beautiful.

Unlike past fights between polluting industries and environmentalists, this one pits people who say they want more renewable power against companies that want to generate it. It threatens to significantly slow efforts by the Biden administration and businesses to fight climate change by reducing America’s carbon emissions.

“An energy system based on renewables is still an industrial- scale system, with large generation and transmission projects that people don’t necessarily want in their neighborhoods,” said Samantha Gross, director of the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution.

Tortoise habitat

Conservationists say clean energy shouldn’t come at the cost of damaging the environment or threatening endangered species. The Sierra Club, which describes itself as “a relentless advocate for the decarbonization of the electric grid via renewable energy sources,” is one of several environmental groups opposing a 690- megawatt solar plant on prime desert tortoise habitat off Interstate 15 about 35 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The $1 billion project, known as Gemini, would, like Battle Born, be developed by Glendale, Calif.-based Arevia and connect to the NV Energy Inc. transmission system.

Solar generation has grown to 4.5% of the nation’s electricity supply from 0.1% in 2010, due largely to plummeting prices for equipment. Producing utility-scale solar is now similar to or below the cost of gas and all other energy technologies, even before including government incentives, according to investment bank Lazard Ltd.

Expanding solar and wind power is part of President Biden’s plan to convert the nation’s power grid to 100% renewable energy by 2035. One of the biggest obstacles is local residents and environmental groups that can tie up projects in regulatory reviews or courts for years. Already, activists have blocked or are seeking to block projects in Nevada, Washington, Indiana and Virginia.

San Bernardino County, Calif., which lists renewable energy as a foundation of its move toward sustainable development, in 2019 put the brakes on new proposals for large solar projects near more than a dozen rural communities, where residents complained of potential dust.

“There were tons of these proposed, so the communities got together and started to fight back,” said Brian Hammer, a leader of the fight to stop solar plants in the Lucerne Valley, where three would have nearly encircled his desert home.

Solar-industry executives say they construct their projects responsibly and that building them fast can help combat climate change. “Responsibly developing solar and storage projects on public lands delivers tremendous benefits to the region, state and everyone wanting to preserve this valuable ecosystem,” Ricardo Graf, managing partner of Arevia, said in a written statement.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees public land where 81 applications for solar plants are pending, said the agency works with residents, interest groups and other affected parties “to develop mitigations which allow solar projects while protecting resources.”

The BLM is charged under the Energy Act of 2020 with permitting at least 25,000 megawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2025. The agency now has 6,900 megawatts in operation, enough to power 1.1 million homes.

Feinstein bill

Solar power plants have faced opposition from activists and politicians from both parties since the industry’s early days. In 2009, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein— a longtime supporter of renewable energy—introduced a bill to create the Mojave Trails National Monument on one million acres to safeguard pristine desert where several solar plants had been planned. The bill didn’t try to stop those plants altogether, just redirect them onto private property and public lands that had already been disturbed, such as by grazing.

President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in 2016.

Sen. Feinstein has backed clean energy projects in parts of the desert that need less conservation, such as are allowed in a 2016 state-federal agreement called the Desert Renewable Conservation Plan. “It’s important to understand that we don’t have to choose to either protect the desert or build more clean energy infrastructure— we can and already are doing both,” she said in a written statement.

Recently, Nevada has gone all in on solar development. On Earth Day of 2019, Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat, signed a bill to increase Nevada’s renewable energy portfolio to 50% by 2030—one of the most ambitious targets in the nation.

Over the past five years, more than 50 solar plants have been built in Nevada with generating capacity of about 1,000 megawatts, enough to power Reno. Another two dozen totaling more than 3,500 megawatts are in the planning stage, led by Gemini and Battle Born.

Both projects had been in the offing under different companies since 2007, but didn’t gain momentum until the current push for clean energy. Gemini was put on a regulatory fast track. It drew opposition from environmental groups and the Moapa Band of Paiutes, whose reservation sits next to the proposed solar plant along Interstate 15 about 35 miles east of Las Vegas.

“This is a clear environmental justice issue that cannot go unaddressed,” the tribe said in an Oct. 10, 2019, letter to Bureau of Land Management officials, citing impacts including noise, dust and damage to its ancestral homeland.

Tribal power

Tribal members say they support solar power, noting that they allowed a 250-megawatt facility to be built on their lands in 2017. Kevin Emmerich, cofounder of the Nevada-based Basin and Range Watch environmental group, is a longtime supporter of solar energy. He once fried an egg on the pavement at Death Valley National Park when he worked there as a park ranger. “It’s something you have to do,” he said.

Mr. Emmerich also believes big solar projects represent a threat to a desert landscape he has worked for decades to protect. In particular, he worries about the impact on the threatened desert tortoise, a reclusive creature whose shrinking habitat is imperiled by development, according to federal studies.

At a July 23, 2019, public hearing in Las Vegas, Mr. Emmerich suggested the panels needed to run the Gemini plant could instead be installed atop buildings in Las Vegas—a possibility industry officials call too spread out to be economical. “Approving this project would be a shame,” he said. “You shouldn’t do it.”

The Interior Department in May 2020 approved the project anyway, stipulating Arevia Power would have to take mitigation measures such as relocating tortoises to new habitat. In all, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report estimates 15,390 of the threatened turtles stand to lose nearly 70,000 acres of habitat in solar projects planned for the Southwestern deserts.

Mr. Graf said Arevia intends to work with federal agencies to protect both the tortoises and native plants at this and other projects and that they will have “far less impact” on the desert than off-road vehicle use.

About 15 miles to the east, the roughly 10,000 residents of the three main Moapa Valley towns—Overton, Logandale and Moapa—are determined to avoid a similar fate for Battle Born.

Founded in the 19th century as an outpost of Mormon settlers, the valley in recent decades has become home to a mix of commuters, retirees and tourism businesses. The valley went through a slump 10 years ago, following the 2007-09 recession and closure of nearby boating facilities amid falling levels at Lake Mead.

But since then, it has been on the rebound, with the Mormon Mesa drawing four-wheelers, bicyclists and skydivers onto its plateau of yucca and creosote. The mesa is filled with Native American artifacts and features a 1,500 foot trench called the Double Negative, created in 1969 by artist Michael Heizer as one of the world’s largest pieces of land art.

Kyle Grimes is one of relatively few local residents who publicly support Battle Born, as well as Gemini, which he says are needed “just to get away from the fossil fuel.” But the business consultant said he would like to see Battle Born moved off areas of the mesa where people recreate.

More common are the local residents who formed a group called Save Our Mesa and began campaigning against the site on Facebook, in sign-waving protests and at a public meeting held at a community center in Overton last October. Among their other concerns: more dust and hotter temperatures from the solar operation, as well as destruction of the mesa and the tourism industry it supports. “We don’t want to be the guinea pigs,” Lisa Childs, co-founder of the citizens group, said in the meeting.

Mr. Graf told the overflowing room of about 200 people it was still early in the process but that Battle Born would be built in an environmentally friendly way and that benefits to the community would include more than 1,000 jobs, mostly in the construction.

Mr. Graf challenged the concerns on dust, heat and economic harm—saying the plant’s footprint would take up less than a tenth of the mesa’s 200 square mile area.

For now, the opponents have gained a delay in the permitting for Battle Born. On a mild February morning, Ms. Childs and other project opponents headed up to Mormon Mesa in their gasoline-powered all-terrain vehicles to inspect favorite overlooks that they fear will be forever marred.

“Once it’s done,” said Ms. Childs, with her engine switched off, “it can’t be undone.”

Solar-industry executives say their projects combat climate change.

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