Since the start of the utility-scale buildout of public lands in the California and Nevada deserts just before 2010, scientists and conservationists have learned a lot about the negative impacts to biodiversity and species at risk from these very large energy projects.
The recent article from the Hill, “Trump Administration to Approve Largest Solar Farm in the US,” does acknowledge that the proposed 11-square-mile Gemini Solar Project will have negative impacts on the iconic desert tortoise — a Federally Protected species that inhabits the Mojave Desert which is seeing big declines throughout its range.
But the article still fails to completely outline how big the impacts from this project would actually be on our public lands. The biologists hired by Solar Partners LLC have estimated that the project will result in the excavation and removal of 215 adult desert tortoises and over 900 juveniles from their home ranges. Such mass translocations of tortoises from other development projects have resulted in mortality as high as 50 percent. Most juvenile tortoises are lost because of their small size and inability of biologists to find them and remove them from the path of heavy machinery during construction activities.
More than half of the beautiful Mojave Desert scrub and grass habitats would be run over with heavy-duty 23,000-pound mulcher machines in order to construct the Gemini Solar Project. This is a devastating impact to not only tortoises, but to desert kit foxes, burrowing owls, desert iguanas, kangaroo rats, wildflowers and delicate biological soil crusts that hold the soil together and keep out invasive cheatgrass and red brome.
The project would also permanently destroy 700 acres of habitat for the Threecorner milkvetch which has been identified as one on Nevada’s most endangered plant species. It has undergone impacts from urban sprawl, livestock grazing and now, large-scale solar energy. The area is a permanently closed allotment in Clark County, Nev., in order to conserve habitat for rare and threatened species.
The project will create a huge visual impact along the entrance road to Valley of Fire State Park — Nevada’s first state park. It would also destroy several Native American cultural sites and impact 3 miles of the Congressionally designated and protected Old Spanish National Historic Trail.
The Hill should not be promoting the needless destruction of valued public lands when far more efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives exist.
For example, the huge construction footprint of projects like Gemini Solar could be avoided if better policies to increase advanced Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) were enacted. The technology is already here for microgrids connecting systems of photovoltaic panels across rooftops, parking lot shade structures, urban brownfields and commercial buildings. The software is already developed to enable intelligent load-balancing and islanding of solar-plus-storage microgrids in local communities — a way to stave off Planned Safety Power Shutoffs enforced by utilities such as PG&E as they deal with their network of long high-voltage transmission lines. Gemini Solar Project will need such new transmission lines to carry energy generated at this remote desert facility to distant load centers.
The California Independent System Operator reports monthly grid congestion and oversupply due to too many utility-scale solar projects feeding into the grid without planning or foresight, resulting in the need to curtail these solar projects — shut them off during the day when the sun is shining. A megawatt-hour is a measure of a megawatt of energy generated continuously over an hour; a typical microwave uses one kilowatt. There are 1,000 kilowatts in a megawatt. Think of one megawatt-hour as running your microwave continuously for 1,000 hours (about 40 days). A waste of public lands and a waste of energy.
The time is now to conserve the last of our precious public lands and wild ecosystems and shift to local smart Distributed Energy Generation.
Laura Cunningham is the California Director at Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife throughout the American West. Kevin Emmerich is a former ranger for the National Park Service and has also worked as a biologist on surveys for rare and endangered species in the Mojave Desert. He is now the Co-Founder of Basin and Range Watch, a non-profit working to conserve the deserts of Nevada and California and to educate the public about the diversity of life, culture, and history of the ecosystems and wild lands of the desert.