Gemini Project Is the First of Many Big Solar Developments to Come
The 690-megawatt Gemini solar power plant, slated for development on 7,000 acres a half-hour northeast of Las Vegas, had its first public vetting last week.
If it goes forward as planned, it will be the biggest array in Nevada, pushing the state toward realizing its wished-for "Saudi Arabia of solar" status.
"It's going to be one of the largest photovoltaic solar plants if approved," said Gregory Helseth, the director of wind and solar programs for the Bureau of Land Management.
Helseth said the project must still go through several hoops before it is approved. If it doesn't meet several standards laid out by the BLM, then it could be rejected he said.
The BLM leases or grants land for projects like this. Currently, there are more than 9 million acres of federally managed land available for solar projects like Gemini.
One part of the project that sets it apart from other solar arrays is it will be built with large batteries that will be able to store power and send it to NV Energy during peak need.
"The best part about this project is the 380-megawatt battery that comes along with it, which has a meaningful effect for the utility they can deploy those megawatts when it's most needed into the Southern Nevada load system," said Ricardo Graf, the chief development officer for Arevia Power.
Graf said more and more solar power plants are being built with batteries to store power for future use.
"What it is doing is inching us closer to decarbonizing our energy fleet in the United States," Graf said, "This is a stepping stone towards that."
Graf said his company is looking at more projects like Gemini but it must be cautious about where it sets up an array because building and maintaining transmission lines can be tricky.
If approved, construction of the plant could start as early as the end of next year. Graf said as many as 7,000 people could be working on the construction effort. When finished, it will employ about 10 to 15 people permanently.
Max Carter is with the electric workers union. He attended the meeting about the project last week. He said large scale solar projects like Gemini bring the benefits of solar to people who can't put solar panels on their roofs.
"It lets everybody participate in the renewable energy trend that's moving across the nation," he said, "I've seen how these large scale projects that we've seen the power going to California have kept construction workers able to stay home in Las Vegas and feed their families now we're finally getting a chance to build projects that are going to supply power to Nevada."
Besides providing jobs, this type of large-scale solar plant will help get Nevada closer to its goal of 50 percent of its power produced by renewable sources by 2030.
Tony Sanchez is the senior vice president for NV Energy. He said one of the reasons solar plants like Gemini make sense now is that the cost of the panels has come down significantly over the years.
"Solar can compete with any energy form," he said, "It is competing with natural gas."
Sanchez said the power company was building new natural-gas-fired power plants during the early 2000s but will not be doing that in the future because solar is cost-effective now.
He said the lower cost has also allowed the company to phase out carbon-producing coal-fired power plants and replace that energy with clean solar power.
Large solar arrays will not replace rooftop solar around Southern Nevada, but instead augment it, Sanchez said. NV Energy is continuing its net metering, which is the money residents who have rooftop solar get for returning extra power to the company.
There are people who argue that instead of building a large-scale solar plant in the desert we should be using the city's built environment for solar panels.
Kevin Emmerich of Basin and Range Watch made that argument during last week's meeting on the Gemini Project.
"We're not really utilizing our built environment space number one," he said, "And that would just be city right here. And this city has a multitude of businesses, residential buildings."
NV Energy and solar project proponents are not against the idea of adding more solar panels in places like highway medians or parking lots, but Guy Snow with the American Solar Energy Society said large -scale projects like Gemini are necessary to address climate change.
"I think there is a major advantage to these large solar plants," he said, "That advantage being that when NV Energy needs power in one section or another they can dispatch that directly."
Snow added that batteries being added to solar power plants is making them even better because solar power won't be dependent on weather anymore. Instead, it can be stored and shipped out when needed.
Despite the positives of the new project, there are some objections. The area where Arevia Power wants to build is home to desert tortoises, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Patrick Donnelly with the Center for Biology Diversity said the area is an important habitat but the center supports using more renewable energy in Nevada
"Ultimately, there are many, many large scale projects on public lands in the pipeline and we need to decide how we're going to deal with those projects as a society," he said, "Climate is a huge screaming emergency. Our planet is in crisis because we are burning fossil fuels at an alarming rate and radically altering our climate regime. We are driving species to extinction. We need to deal with that and we need to deal with it now - like immediately. "
Graf and the BLM are working on a plan to address the desert tortoise issue at the project site.
The plan is to move the tortoises from the site temporarily then allow them to return through slats in the fence. Graf said a similar solar project being run by Valley Electric has done the same thing for the tortoises and so far it is working.
The solar arrays are actually providing more shelter and shade for the desert animals.
The project is currently under review by the BLM and a public comment period is open. To comment on the project, go to the BLM website.
(Editor's note: This story originally aired August 2019)
Ricardo Graf, chief development officer, Arevia Power; Gregory Helseth, director of solar and wind programs, Bureau of Land Management; Tony Sanchez, senior vice president, NV Energy; Guy Snow, president, American Solar Energy Society