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Large-scale solar, wind and geothermal developers hit project headwinds on public land

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Solar field in Nevada

With Nevada and other Western states discussing ways to increase the use of renewables, a big question is lingering in the background: Where will all the new solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal plants go?

The answer, at least in part: public land owned by the federal government.

The question then becomes: Where?

Because the federal government manages about 85 percent of the land in Nevada, large-scale solar, wind and geothermal developers are often looking to build projects on public land.

“I'd say public land plays a huge role in the furthering of renewable energy," David Bobzien, who runs Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Office of Energy, said during an interview this week.

But siting a project can be costly and challenging in the face of balancing the disturbances of development with public access, wildlife and recreation. The tension can often split allies.

One example: Most environmentalists see renewables as a primary way to reduce fossil fuel consumption and tackle climate change. But within that group, many are wary that a laser-like focus on building out renewables could further fragment the landscape and harm imperiled species.

Nevada is at the center of this tension.

With ample land and its proximity to big Western markets like California, the state is already benefiting from the increased demand for renewables. On Earth Day, Sisolak is expected to sign legislation raising the state’s renewable standards to 50 percent by 2030.

Earlier this month, Environmental Entrepreneurs released a report showing the state was first for clean energy job growth in 2018. According to data compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association, Nevada was fifth in the nation for installing photovoltaic panels last year.

Katherine Gensler, the association’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said federal permitting has improved in the last decade. She said the “good news” is that agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have put procedures in place tailored to permitting solar projects.

“The good news here is that 12 years ago, there was no process,” Gensler said. “There was literally no procedure in place to do solar on BLM-managed land. It was a new journey for everyone involved — the BLM staff and the solar industry.”

The bad news, she said, is that the agency, which manages more than 65 percent of Nevada’s land, is charging rents that are “markedly higher than what private land rates are going for” and not sending royalties back to local communities. Although the BLM has expedited the permitting process in the last five years, the time and cost involved can be a consideration for developers.

Cost and time are not the only concerns. The BLM manages its land for multiple uses that include conservation, recreation and energy production. These missions often conflict with proposed renewable energy projects. In November, the BLM denied a Southern Nevada wind project amid opposition from environmentalists, the Review-Journal reported. The area was near wilderness and and an important spiritual site for lower Colorado River tribes.

One of the environmental groups that opposed that project, Basin and Range Watch, has advocated rooftop solar and siting solar arrays in the built environment rather than in untouched desert.

Even among opponents of the wind project, there was a divide about how to move forward in deploying more solar. Alex Daue, an assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society, came out against the wind project but does not oppose all large-scale renewables. He said there is a place for renewables on public land if projects are in appropriate locations.

“We definitely believe that public lands should be part of our climate solution, and right now they are part of the problem,” Daue said, pointing to how much oil is extracted on public land.

That line could pick up steam in the Democratic presidential primary. As part of a presidential campaign platform on public lands, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would try to shift energy generation so 10 percent of U.S. energy came from renewables offshore or on public land. To do that, Daue said the BLM needs to continue identifying places with low conflicts.

Daue applauded the BLM for designating the Dry Lake solar zone outside of Las Vegas. The designation was an attempt to target solar projects to an area with existing fragmentation.

The Nature Conservancy has also proposed pushing more solar development to brownfield sites, like mines, although such development is costly, and there are regulatory concerns.

"When you are talking about the implementation of renewable portfolio standards, siting is really important. It needs to be part of the conversation from the beginning,” said Jaina Moan, who works on climate issues as an external affairs director with the conservancy.

Moan noted that the group has worked on a computer model to identify areas in which there is high solar and wind potential, but low conflicts with imperiled species and wildlife corridors.

"It allows land managers to take [geospatial] data and overlay them on maps to really figure out where the best sites are,” Moan said. “[It does] two things: maximize resource potential and at the same time identify those areas if they are in low-impact zones so they have a minimal impact on species distribution, biodiversity, wildlife corridors and that kind of thing.”

Solar is not the only renewable that runs into conflicts with federal land. Geothermal does, too.

For instance, the proposed withdrawal of about 600,000 acres of federal land for the Navy’s expansion of its Fallon range could hinder geothermal development in high-potential areas. The state is still planning to negotiate with the Navy on how to mitigate the impacts of that proposal.

Rich Perry, who runs the Division of Minerals and oversees state permitting for geothermal, said that about 60 percent of the state’s geothermal generation is produced on federal land.

“Most of the growth in the last few years has been on federal leases,” he said.

In addition to challenges around siting large-scale renewable generation, finding appropriate locations for transmission lines can be just as difficult. Environmentalists often oppose new lines because they fragment wild places. Transmission lines also often require new roads, creating more problems for wildlife. And transmission towers can also be a boon for avian predators, a place to nest for birds like ravens, which attack imperiled sage grouse and young tortoises.

Increased raven predation was the primary reason that the Nevada Legislature, in 2015, passed a resolution asking Congress to remove raven protections from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

As for permitting the projects, Bobzien said his office is looking to focus more on land use.

“The way I see our office engaging on these issues is we are going to have more of a land use function, even if it's monitoring the various project proposals and permitting efforts,” he said.

And he added: "There's always going to be friction and difficulty when it comes to permitting.”


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