A photo of land near the site of a proposed large-scale wind project. (Courtesy of Kevin Emmerich/Basin and Range Watch)

When federal land managers released information last month on a project to build around 160 wind turbines on public land near Searchlight, the Mojave Desert conservation community experienced a collective pang of deja vu. The announcement came less than a year after they had won an unprecedented victory against a smaller wind project sited in the area.

The dispute between environmentalists and clean energy companies — natural allies on issues like climate change — reflects a broader tension, especially in the desert, over where to put renewable projects. Conservationists argue in favor of more rooftop solar and limiting clean energy projects to disturbed land. Renewable developers want to site their projects in areas with high resource potential. They look for areas with transmission lines, a connection to the grid.

Crescent Peak Renewables, LLC, a subsidiary of Eolus North America, Inc., is looking at siting its turbines and substations in an area of the desert that has both of these things.

This tension was on full display last week, as the Bureau of Land Management, the agency reviewing the project’s environmental impacts, hosted four meetings for public comment on the wind project. Dozens of conservationists showed up to give testimony at the meetings. About 50 people showed up at the first of the four meetings in Searchlight last Monday, the Review-Journal reported.

At the third BLM gathering Wednesday in the meeting rooms beyond Santa Fe Station’s casino floor, executives made the case that the project’s placement avoids more critical public land.

“It is not the windiest place in the country. But for this part of the country, and in particular for Southern Nevada, it’s a very unique place,” said Ed Duggan, a senior project manager. “It’s one of the best sites that isn’t in an [Area of Critical Environmental Concern or ACECs] or a wilderness [area].”

Yet if the wind farm is built, it would be surrounded by public land that the BLM, presidents and Congress have designated as protected landscape. The proposed wind project rests between national monuments, ACECs and wilderness areas. That’s one reason that environmentalists are so concerned by its placement. In addition to wildlife impacts, building so many turbines — the smallest ones would be the height of a 41-foot building — could change the landscape.

At public meetings last week, conservationists voiced these concerns.

“We’re not against renewable energy, but this is one of the worst sites I’ve ever seen,” said Laura Cunningham, a Beatty-based conservationist who co-founded Basin and Range Watch. “It’s boxed in by wilderness and national park units… There’s nothing out there but wild nature.”

An Eolus rep stressed that the project, which spans 22 miles along the California Border, would only affect about 900 acres (the BLM is studying about 28,785 acres as it works on an Environmental Impact Statement). Even within that area, the project could be limited by existing mining claims.

Duggan, the project manager, said the land would still be open for hiking and offroad vehicles.

“Another thing about wind energy that we think is a real benefit is the turbines will be quite far apart…,” he said. “We are occupying less than three percent of the land [that’s being studied].”

He also argued that the project could help integrate more clean energy with the grid. The wind turbines, which would generate enough renewable energy to power about 100,000 homes, could help balance the regional market, which is heavily reliant on solar. Since solar panels only generate power when the sun is shining, the resource creates intermittency problems for grid managers at night. Duggan argued that the wind project could be used to fill in those gaps.

The push by Eolus, a Swedish company with offices in San Diego and Reno, comes a year after another wind developer, amid a years-long legal saga, abandoned a similar project in the area.

Conservationists took federal land managers to court over their approval of an environmental review for the earlier project, which was backed by Apex Clean Energy. In 2015, a federal judge vacated the environmental analysis, ruling that land managers had failed to fully consider how the project might affect the desert tortoise and golden eagles, federally protected species.

That ruling was a big win for local environmental groups, including Basin and Range Watch, one of the organizations that brought the case. The decision marked the first time a judge had thrown out an environmental impact statement for a renewable energy plant.

An appeals court upheld the decision in 2016.

By April 2017, developers had abandoned the wind project altogether.

Now environmentalists are looking at what to do about an even larger wind project in a similar area. The environmental review is not expected to be done for at least several months, but Cunningham, with Basin and Range Watch, said they were not ruling out another lawsuit.

“This is a far worse project,” said Alan O’Neill, a former superintendent for the Lake Mead National Conservation Area. “We spent decades providing protections for the areas down there… And right in the middle of it — like a hole in a doughnut — they want to put this industrial-sized wind project.”

During a break at the Wednesday night meeting, O’Neill listed some of the biological characteristics, one thing the BLM will examine in its review.

“It’s the eastern terminus of the world’s largest Joshua Tree forest,” he said. “It’s got incredible blackbrush community. It has corridors for desert bighorn sheep. There’s genetic exchange in the tortoise populations between California and Nevada. They’ve got an incredible eagle and raptor population there. Even some Sonoran bird species frequent that area, which is unusual. It’s got one of the most significant grasslands…  It’s like the prairie grasslands. You don’t find that in the Mojave Desert.”

Then, he said, there are cultural concerns too. Spirit Mountain, east of the site near Lake Mojave, is a spiritual site for Lower Colorado River tribes. A member of the Fort Mojave Native American tribe was part of the lawsuit fighting the other project, the Desert Sun reported.

The company noted that exhaustive cultural and biological studies were being conducted as part of the federally mandated environmental review process. Executives at the company said that they had some flexibility with where they sited specific turbines within the project area. They could, for instance, delete or move a turbine from the project if it created too many conflicts.

In a fact sheet, Eolus said the project could create about 200 to 400 construction jobs and 20 to 40 jobs for operation and maintenance. The company would also pay royalties.

“That’s something we think could benefit Searchlight and surrounding communities,” Duggan said.

The public has until June 13th to comment on the project (directions for commenting can be found on the BLM’s site). The BLM incorporates comments into its environmental review.

Conservationists hope to convince the BLM to go in a different direction.

Cunningham said she is trying to build support for including the project site in a proposed Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which would add another layer of protection and make it more difficult to disturb the land with a large-scale wind project. Later this month, Basin and Range Watch is planning to recruit citizen scientists to record the rare grasses and wildlife in the area.

“There are a lot better places for a project like this — in a more disturbed, urban, fringe habitat.” Cunningham said.

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