A Continuing Assault on Nevada Public Lands

by Kevin Emmerich

As many know, the federal push to develop renewable energy on public lands is in full force, and Nevada has become a Ground Zero for many of these large-scale projects. At this point, there are four projects under construction in Southern Nevada (at about 15,000 acres total), and seven additional projects undergoing National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) Review. These and other future projects appear likely to alter the very nature of the Great American West, replacing a largely natural landscape with a much more industrialized one. There needs to be further debate in this country as to whether this is something that we as a people want to do.

“Big green” proposals for Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands must go through a few phases of review before they can be considered for NEPA. One of the first is called the Prioritization Process. This occurs when BLM districts receive several green energy applications, and the process is used to choose the ones with the fewest conflicts. While a low priority application usually doesn’t move forward, several that have been designated as “medium” and “high” priority are moving forward to the next phase – the Variance Process. Created under the Record of Decision for the 2012 Western Solar Plan (under revision now), the 19 million acres of Variance Lands are all open to solar development, but must go through a “Variance Process”, which is a pre-NEPA review. In our experience, the Variance Process in Nevada has been tailored to move projects more quickly into a NEPA review. We have only seen the BLM reject one variance application in Silurian Valley, CA in 2014 – before the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan was established.

There are over 130 applications in Nevada for these green projects on federal lands. Just under ten have been rejected and the rest are being reviewed and are lingering as applications.

The major green energy proposals in Nevada follow existing or planned transmission infrastructure. Along the I-15 corridor in Southern Nevada are some very large projects on BLM land including Gemini Solar, which is now under construction. Over 170 adult desert tortoises were moved off the project site, where 700 acres are being destroyed, habitat for one of Nevada’s rarest plants and one of the few endangered species designated in Nevada – the three corner milkvetch. Gemini is being touted as the most “eco” solar project on public lands because the company is using a “drive and crush” style of clearing. They have left some linear rows of vegetation, which is admittedly better than most solar projects, but project vehicles weighing up to 40,000 pounds still must drive off-road for dozens of miles.. The plan is to release over 100 desert tortoises under the solar panels. Most desert tortoise biologists say this is a big experiment and are unwilling to say it would be successful yet.

Other projects in the area on BLM land are Red Flats Solar (5,000 acres in Meadow Valley Wash), the Dry Lake South Solar Energy Zone, and Dry Lake East (a site known to have bighorn sheep, Gila monsters, desert tortoises, and even recently discovered Mojave fringe-toed lizards).

Proposed also for southern and western Nevada is the 525 kV, 476-mile Green Link West Transmission Project, which would carry 5 GW of energy. If built, it will cut through a corner of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument and enable several large-scale energy projects near Indian Springs and in the area between Amargosa and Ft. Churchill, Nevada. The Esmeralda Substation would be built west of Tonopah, where there are currently seven large solar projects associated with just this one substation. View map at: http://desertreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Esmeralda-area-applications.png   If fully built, they could develop over 60 square miles of public land, destroying rare plants, pronghorn habitat, cultural sites, and “Lands with Wilderness Characteristics”. The 5,000-acre Libra Solar project near Yerington, NV, which is near the wildlife-rich Walker River, is now undergoing a NEPA review.

Proposed from the Reno/Ft. Churchill region to Ely is the 525 kV Greenlink North Transmission Project – a 235-mile transmission line along the “Loneliest Road in America” – Highway 50. It would carry 3 GW of energy generated by new solar and wind projects. Greenlink North would also build the Lander Substation in Big Smoky Valley east of Austin. There are roughly 40,000 acres of solar applications in this area. One is called the Lonely Solar Project, to add insult to injury. Projects would be built close to Spencer Hot Springs. Near Ely, the Robinson Substation is being upgraded, and four transmission projects would eventually hook into the new infrastructure. At this point, there are six solar applications, five wind energy applications, one geothermal project, and one pumped storage proposal. The exact acreage is not determined, but it is over 100,000 acres.  Moving the fastest is Stagecoach Wind, a 49,000-acre proposed wind project in Newark Valley. This is located in a Priority Management Habitat Area for the greater sage grouse, a golden eagle hot spot, and wildlife habitat for pygmy rabbit and pronghorn. The turbines would be close to 700 feet tall.

The GridLiance transmission network is now owned by Nextera Energy, and they are proposing to upgrade the existing 49 miles near Pahrump and Indian Springs, and to build a new double circuit 230 kV line from the Johnnie ghost town to Beatty. These upgrades will enable several new large-scale solar projects in the Mojave Desert. Several new switchyards would be built between Amargosa Valley and Beatty which would move “gigawatts” of energy. There are three large development zones that would hook up to these projects. These are Indian Springs Valley, Pahrump Valley, and Amargosa Valley.   View maps as folllows.  Indian Springs Valley: http://desertreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Indian-Springs-area-projects.png   Pahrump Valley:  http://desertreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Pahrump-Valley-projects.png   Amargosa Valley: http://desertreport.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/04/Amargosa-Valley-projects.png

The Innovation Substation near Indian Springs would be upgraded, and as a result, there are four large-scale solar applications spanning 20,000 acres being proposed for the area. Bonanza Solar is the most advanced, undergoing a NEPA review currently. The area has been identified by the Fish and Wildlife Service as the “most crucial desert tortoise connectivity corridor in Nevada”. Because of this, Basin and Range Watch nominated a 58,000-acre Cactus Springs Area of Critical Environmental Concern conservation alternative, which is now being considered by BLM in the Bonanza Solar Environmental Impact Statement.

The South Pahrump Valley is looking at 18,000 acres of big solar projects, with Yellow Pine Solar already under construction. The full solar buildout for the area would destroy multiple valuable public land resources including thousands of Mojave yuccas, some Joshua trees, rare plants, mammoth fossils, public land access, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail view-shed, and multiple wildlife species. The Yellow Pine Solar Project has already moved over 160 desert tortoises, 33 of which were moved during a record breaking drought and killed by badgers. Two other projects, Copper Rays and Rough Hat, seek to move hundreds more desert tortoises from 7,500 acres.

Basin and Range Watch, along with seven other organizations, is asking the Interior Department and BLM to void the Environmental Impact Statement for the Rough Hat Clark County Solar Project. That project would have to excavate 114 adult desert tortoises. The project site tortoise density now rivals several of the established Fish and Wildlife Service Desert Tortoise Critical Habitat units. The basin is also severely over-drafted for water resources, and Nye County is actively protesting water permits for Yellow Pine Solar. The other developers seek thousands of acre feet of water for construction of their projects.

There are big plans for the Amargosa Valley, and at one point there were over 60,000 acres of active solar project applications there. The BLM placed six of these projects on a Low Priority status due to their big water requirements, but six big projects remain. Two applications next to Death Valley National Park could start to move forward in the next year. These are called SB Solar and Rigel Solar, spanning over 11,000 acres. SB Solar would be about ¼ mile from the park border just south of the Rhyolite ghost town. Rigel Solar would be along a popular recreation route that loops through Chloride Cliff in Death Valley National Park. The projects would use valuable water that feeds Devil’s Hole and Ash Meadows, create big dust problems, and compromise the spectacular view-shed on the east side of Death Valley National Park. These projects have seen opposition from Nye County and the community of Beatty, Nevada.

The energy land rush on Nevada public lands has a lot of political support from Washington, but the impacts from these proposed plans are huge, and their popularity is rapidly declining with the public. After seeing the size and impacts of solar facilities in the last decade, people are starting to wake up, and there are now far more requests to use rooftops and previously developed sites instead of intact public lands.

Kevin Emmerich is a former park ranger and field biologist. He has lived in the Mojave Desert for thirty years. Together with his wife, they founded the non-profit conservation organization Basin & Range Watch which advocates for environmentally responsible stewardship of the American southwestern deserts.