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Renewable energy efforts in Nevada could be a double-edged sword

FILE - An "Access Restricted" sign is displayed at the Lithium Nevada Corp. mine site at Thacker Pass on April 24, 2023, near Orovada, Nev.
Rick Bowmer
FILE - An "Access Restricted" sign is displayed at the Lithium Nevada Corp. mine site at Thacker Pass on April 24, 2023, near Orovada, Nev.

State and federal officials are making a huge push for renewable development. They see it as a key to combatting the negative effects of climate change.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nevada, where the Inflation Reduction Act is encouraging a boom in lithium, solar, and geothermal projects. The Department of Energy has tracked $10.5 billion of new battery and electric vehicle supply chain investment in the state since President Joe Biden took office.

Meg Mills-Novoa, an assistant professor of environmental science, policy and management at UC Berkeley, notes, "Nevada is an absolute hotspot for green transition development right now, and that's because of a few reasons. One is, because it's over 80 percent public lands. ... Also, Nevada has known occurrences of 21 critical minerals. ... It has around 65 geothermal plants that have been leased or are under development, it has tens of thousands, if not millions, of acres of proposed utlity-scale solar, and it has a growing number of pumped-storage projects."

Is there a downside to this? What if all that renewable development itself has a negative impact? Does it undermine the supposed benefits for climate change? Questions like these are at the heart of work being done by Mills-Novoa and Sophia Borgias of Boise State University.

In 2023, the pair spent two weeks traveling around the Great Basin, primarily in Nevada, interviewing stakeholders about the costs and benefits of the transition to clean energy, as those stakeholders were experiencing them.

An area that stood out in their travels, Borgias says, was Fish Lake Valley, west of Tonopah, near the California border. In this one small area, they found, were multiple proposals for exploratory geothermal and lithium drilling, as well as hundreds of lithium mining claims. "From any one spot, on the alkali playa there on the valley floor, you can see all these stakes that have been placed on the playa to stake a claim to direct lithium extraction," Borgias says. "And all this is happening in an over-appropriated basin, so, a place where the state has allocated water rights to more water than is recharged into the basin each year."

She adds that lithium mining and geothermal development both use enormous amounts of water, and can disturb delicate ecosystems.

"It's a place that really highlights the potential cumulative impacts of multiple types of projects, even just at the exploratory phase, as new roads are being built and drilling is happening with very little oversight. And it also shows how the efforts to address the climate crisis can collide with the biodiversity crisis and long-standing issues of environmental justice faced by Indigenous Peoples and rural communities. And water is really at the center of all that."

Borgias and Mills-Novoa are hoping to extend their work in the area to encompass dozens of interviews at each site. They are working on funding proposals to create an interactive online map that would show pending projects and link to resources such as development documentation, related regulations, cultural archives, and biodiversity research.

"One thing we heard on the ground is that people need information," Mills-Novoa says. "There's a lot of focus on, 'I have this project going on in my backyard, I'm worried about this particular project." ... A lot of these communities are experiencing multiple projects all over at the same time. ... We are really working with communities who are trying to figure out, how do we negotiate benefits for our local community in the context of these projects?"

Guests: Sophia Borgias, assistant professor, interdisciplinary programs, Boise State University; Meg Mills-Novoa, assistant professor, environmental science, policy & management, University of California Berkeley

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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and KNPR's State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022. In 2024, Interim CEO Favian Perez promoted Heidi to managing editor, charged with integrating the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsroom operations.
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