Biggest U.S. solar project approved in Southern Nevada despite critics

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Reed Saxon / AP

In this April 4, 2008 file photo, Marines wait for a desert tortoise, endangered and protected by federal law from harm or harassment, to move off the road at the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif. The Trump administration has given final approval to $1 billion Gemini solar and battery storage project about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas despite objections from conservationists.

Published Mon, May 11, 2020 (5 p.m.)

Updated Mon, May 11, 2020 (6 p.m.)

RENO — The Trump administration announced final approval Monday of a massive solar plant about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas despite objections from conservationists who say it will destroy thousands of acres of habitat critical to the survival of the threatened Mojave desert tortoise in Nevada.

The $1 billion Gemini Solar Project will extend across 7,100 acres in the Mojave Desert, making it the largest solar project in U.S. history and the eighth largest in the world. It is expected to produce 690 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 260,000 households in Nevada, Arizona and California — and annually offset greenhouse emissions of about 83,000 cars.

It will create about 2,000 direct and indirect jobs and inject an estimated $712.5 million in the economy as the nation tries to recover from the downturn brought on by the coronavirus outbreak, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said.

“As our economy rebounds from the invisible enemy, President Trump is working to make the United States stronger than ever before,” Bernhardt said in a statement on Monday. “Our economic resurgence will rely on getting America back to work, and this project delivers on that objective."

The first phase of the project covering about 11 square miles of federal land is expected to be completed next year with 440 MW of solar capacity for use in Nevada. Another 250 MW of generating capacity would be added in the second phase with the power sold in Nevada or exported to Arizona and California in 2022.

Click to enlarge photo

This image shows the proposed area of the Gemini Solar Project, 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Although considered a significant step in sustainable energy, the solar facility has divided project proponents and wildlife conservation activists.

Kevin Emmerich, co-founder of the Basin and Range Watch, has been critical of the Gemini Solar Project from the start. He argues that it would damage the embattled desert tortoise population and threaten rare desert plants that inhabit the site. The BLM estimates that around 1,200 desert tortoises will be impacted by the development.

“We believe solar energy can be an incredibly good thing, but if you put it in the wrong location it can be the worst thing in the world for the environment,” Emmerich said.

The site location is also home to desert horned lizards, kit foxes and a wide range of diverse ecosystems.

But Mark Boyadjian, a managing partner of the California-based Arevia Power, one of the developers behind the project, said large-scale renewable energy projects are key in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, leading causes of wildlife habitat destruction.

“Renewable energy developers play a key role in combating climate change while also developing projects in a way that preserves as much habitat as possible,” he said.

Officials behind the project say they have developed measures to mitigate the environmental impacts, opting for a mowing method they say will result in fewer impacts on native vegetation and wildlife, like the desert tortoise.

But Emmerich said this method is controversial and still disturbs Mojave Desert vegetation.

The project will create as many as 900 construction jobs at its peak, with 19 permanent workers at the site, and support an additional 1,100 jobs in the local community, according to Department of the Interior officials.

“This action is about getting Americans back to work, strengthening communities and promoting investment in American energy,” said Casey Hammond, acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management. “Domestic energy production on federal lands remains fundamental to our national security and the achievements of the Trump administration.”

Associated Press reporter Scott Sonner contributed to this story.

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