Meet The Founder Of A Holdout Conservation Group Opposing Big Solar
The final plan is out for Yellow Pine Solar, a 500-megawatt solar power plant that would span 3,000 acres near Pahrump.
Another one of these massive solar projects, Battleborn, is also on deck. And they both follow Gemini, at nearly 700 megawatts, which was approved last year.
Though these projects cover large areas of pristine desert outside Las Vegas, most conservation groups haven’t objected to them — saying solar development is more important because it fights the climate crisis.
But one nonprofit, Basin and Range Watch, takes a different stance. Cofounder Kevin Emmerich told KNPR's State of Nevada that it is not against solar power but it is against the location of the solar arrays.
“It’s just that location can be problematic. Solar energy is a lower-density energy and that kind of indicates that you need a space to produce a lot of the energy needed to fulfill our needs,” he said.
In the case of Yellow Pine Solar, Emmerich said the land where it is likely going to be built is home to Mojave yucca and desert tortoise, which is a threatened species.
“The Yellow Pine area is on some really pristine public lands that contain a lot of the traditional, what I like to call, old-growth Mojave Desert areas,” he said.
Emmerich described the area as an "unbroken desert landscape." In addition, it is along the Tecopa Road, which is a road that tourists use to travel between Death Valley and Las Vegas.
“Industrializing it will actually be a step down in the scenery when I do think we have some better alternatives and better locations to put these projects,” he said.
One of the alternatives his group suggested is using land that has already been stripped for mining.
Another is using distributed rooftop solar in urban areas.
"We believe that rooftops, the built environment, canopies over parking lots, there are just vast opportunities in the Las Vegas metropolitan area to utilize all of those sources for solar panels,” he said.
People opposed to that idea point out that it can be extremely expensive to build large scale solar arrays in urban areas. Emmerich disagrees and notes developers make up the costs of building in urban areas by saving on transmission costs.
Developers of solar arrays have made changes to the ways they create large-scale solar projects in an effort to minimize the damage to the landscape.
Instead of clearing the land to make way for equipment, they now use heavy-duty mulchers to grind down the vegetation leaving the roots intact.
Emmerich said the idea is that the plants eventually grow back, but to him, it is much more complicated.
“There is a delicate balance in desert soils and desert pavement and old fragile biology soil crust. When that’s disturbed and run over by heavy vehicles, it tends to encourage weeds to move in,” he said.
Plus, the Mojave yuccas are home to all kinds of species of animals like birds and lizards.
As for the desert tortoise, developers now try to move them off the land and then move them back on when the project is completed.
"There is really no peer-reviewed studies to say that in the long term that really works for the desert tortoise and their viability,” Emmerich said.
Besides Yellow Pine Solar, Battleborn solar is in the beginning stages of it's planning. It would be built in an area called South Mormon Mesa. Emmerich said there is a lot of community opposition to the plans in the towns of Moapa and Overton.
Right now, the area is a popular one for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy hiking, horseback and ATV riding there. Some conservationists have opposed those activities because of their impact on the desert landscape.
Emmerich said the difference between solar projects and recreation is the scale. Solar projects require a huge footprint much larger than a single trail.
Overall, Emmerich and his group oppose big solar projects because of that large scale.
“By objecting to these projects, our organization isn’t taking climate change lightly," he said, "We just feel that these projects are so massive we’re not sure if the construction and manufacturing of the parts are not even contributing to the overall carbon emission,”
He believes there are better ways to accomplish the goal of switching from burning fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
He also believes that conservation groups don't jump on board with opposition to these plants because they don't want to be grouped with right-wing opposition to renewable energy.
“I feel that they don’t want to step out there and put themselves vulnerable to criticism and lose membership and lose big donors," he said.
Emmerich said his group has been lumped in with conservative groups opposed to a move to renewable energy, but he isn't concerned about the politics of renewable energy. He is more concerned about opposing projects that he believes are environmentally unsound.
“We just feel that people need to know what’s out there, and people need to know that there are some workable alternatives to this,” he said.
He hopes that, eventually, the consensus will be that solar projects need to be placed in less sensitive areas.
“That’s my hope. In the future, there will be more demand to put these projects in less intrusive locations,” Emmerich said.
Kevin Emmerich, cofounder, Basin and Range Watch