Covering vast swaths of public land is the easy way to develop renewable energy. But is it the smartest?
Nearly two dozen proposed utility-scale solar projects are in development across Nevada, but one has really captured public interest: the 850-megawatt Battle Born Solar Project on Mormon Mesa in the Moapa Valley northeast of Las Vegas. Almost all Southern Nevada’s print news publications have covered it and at least one TV station, focusing mainly on the David-versus-Goliath face-off between a grassroots protest group calling itself Save Our Mesa and Glendale, California-based solar developer Arevia Power.
“It’s a special place. It’s a unique place,” Save Our Mesa organizer Lisa Childs told KNPR’s State of Nevada. Nevertheless, Arevia Managing Partner Ricardo Graf said his company wasn’t considering other locations for the project.
But this story has greater significance than most observers grasp. Battle Born is at the nexus of converging factors making it an example of the complexities — and, some say, shortcomings — of Nevada’s approach to renewable development.
The current plan would put 7,400 acres of solar photovoltaic panels on a 24,000-acre lease area, a bit less than half the part of Mormon Mesa, near Overton, where people like to camp, hike, and ride ATVs and horses. Locals are worried the power plant will hurt their outdoor recreation economy and quality of life. Arevia, meanwhile, estimates it would create more than 1,000 construction jobs and 25-30 permanent jobs, generate $530 million in GDP for Nevada, and offset 1.5 million metric tons of CO2 annually.
This brings up Battle Born’s most obvious bigger-picture significance. Replacing fossil fuel energy sources with renewable ones is key to solving the climate crisis, which everyone from Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak to U.S. President Joe Biden has said is their top priority. Nevada has recently passed laws requiring the state get half its energy from renewable sources by 2030, and achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. One of Biden’s first acts as president was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which will also entail aggressive carbon emission reductions.
Meeting these goals on the timelines proposed will require enormous amounts of new renewable energy. How it should be developed is the subject of myriad plans, policies, and schools of thought, sometimes at odds.
“If you look at how much renewable energy we’re going to need, we’re going to see conflicts,” says Jaina Moan, The Nature Conservancy’s Nevada director of external affairs. “They want to meet their goals … and they see these large projects on public land as the fastest way to do that.”
A well-known example of such conflicts is environmental: On the way to helping save the Earth, utility-scale development may also harm sensitive plant and animal species (think: wind turbines killing endangered birds). Whether this is the case on Mormon Mesa remains to be seen. While not entirely pristine (it’s crisscrossed with trails), it is mostly undisturbed desert. Any damage the power plant might do will be sorted out during the National Environmental Policy Act review process, as Arevia’s spokesperson Graf has emphasized.
A related question is about conservation, increasingly defined as not only environmental protection of the natural environment, but also setting aside recreational areas for human enjoyment. This helps explain the “strange bedfellows” effect; for instance, OHVers (whom environmentalists typically see as air-polluters) allying with environmentalists (whom OHVers usually see as job-killers) to protest development in an area both value.
Another possible conundrum stems from public lands use. The Public Lands Renewable Energy Development Act, which became law as part of the recent omnibus spending bill, sets a minimum production goal of 25 gigawatts of electricity by 2025. Biden will also likely restart federal funding programs that Trump paused, goosing progress toward that “25 by 25” goal. How will this jibe with Biden’s other recently stated goal: conserving 30 percent of public lands by 2030?
That may be no problem in Nevada, which is 85 percent federally owned land. Still, the Bureau of Land Management, overseer of most of that land, including Mormon Mesa, told Save Our Mesa’s Childs that it was, essentially, putting Battle Born on the back burner, prioritizing other projects with “lower potential for resource conflicts.” How (if at all) will the BLM’s stance be affected by the fast-track status the project received under Trump, per Sisolak’s request?
It’s a lot to consider … and we haven’t started talking tribal lands and climate justice yet.
There is a less controversial way, Moan says: Put renewable projects on urban sites, brown fields, and mine lands — an approach recommended in Sisolak’s 2020 Nevada Climate Initiative, based on the Nature Conservancy and partner groups’ Smart From the Start strategy. Previously approved renewable energy zones offer another, less conflict-riddled alternative, but they’re sometimes far from transmission lines and roads.
“If we’re going to have a renewable future,” Moan says, “then we have to make it cost-effective by incentivizing it.” But how to do that during an economic recession causing state budget cuts?
Maybe by laying the groundwork for increased distributed generation? The Nevada Climate Initiative encourages residential and small commercial rooftop solar development, while noting there’s “a policy gap to allow larger installations … on the customer side of the meter. Attention should be given to policy solutions that will allow for such installations to become more widespread.”
State Senators Chris Brooks and James Ohrenschall, and Assemblywoman Lesley Cohen have submitted a handful of solar/renewable-related bill drafts for the upcoming legislative session. The bills’ details are still unclear, but a couple appear to involve community solar and micro-grids. Most of the environmental community’s focus, however, appears to be on scaling back natural gas while increasing electric vehicle usage and energy efficiency.
Plopping a mammoth solar power plant on a chunk of public land may be cheaper and faster than putting one on a brownfield or piecing together an alternative distributed generation grid. But legislators do have opportunities to make those options easier. By June, we’ll know if they had the political will, too.