Clean and Efficient Energy
Major steps have been taken to improve electricity access with renewable energy and energy efficiency policies, however significant effort is still needed to enable a move from policy to investment.
The lack of access to reliable electricity at an affordable price remains a key constraint to achieving broad-based economic development for the West African region. Years of uncoordinated planning and project implementation in the region’s power sector, plus a growing energy sector debt, lack of energy security, a fledgeling regulatory environment, and a lack of stable power grids have denied millions in the region of experiencing improved living standards.
USAID/West Africa’s support to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its specialized institutions aims to improve West Africa’s access to cheap, reliable, secure, and sustainable energy through increased private sector investment.
WEST AFRICA ENERGY PROGRAM (WAEP)
WAEP tackles long-standing constraints to access energy in West Africa by providing technical assistance, transaction advisory services, and targeted use of grant funding. The program seeks to increase power supply and access to reliable and affordable grid connected power by achieving the following outcomes over a four year period:
- Bringing 8,500 MWs of new generation capacity to financial close
- Supporting 4,000 kilometers of new transmission lines to commissioning
- Facilitating 3.6 million on-grid connections (including new and regularized)
As of March 2021, the program has successfully facilitated 645 MW of generation projects to reach financial closure. Through the program’s collaborative efforts with other international financial institutions, over 800 million has been mobilized for energy sector projects across the region.
To accelerate the launch of an interconnected regional electricity market (REM), WAEP teams work with the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA) and the West African Power Pool (WAPP). In the G5 Sahel region, a WAEP embedded advisor works with Power Africa partner, the African Development Bank (AfDB), to implement the Desert-to-Power initiative, which is working to harness the region’s high solar potential. This initiative is accelerating the deployment of innovative green off-grid and on-grid solutions, bridging the current electrification gap and reducing the financial burden the power sector places on national budgets across the region.
West African Power Pool (WAPP)
WAPP supports ECOWAS member states to integrate their national power systems into a unified, sustainable Regional Electricity Market (REM). USAID has provided immeasurable support to WAPP in the areas of program funding, capacity building, and pre-investment studies as ECOWAS works toward providing a stable and reliable electricity supply at an affordable cost.
WAPP has completed a number of training sessions for staff and engineers who are working on the Nigeria-Benin interconnection line. Staff of member utilities, Project Management Units, Ministries of Energy, WAPP Secretariat, and engineers now have improved skill sets in electricity market operations, public private partnerships and investments, and power infrastructure generation and transmission. WAPP is also building institutional capacity by training administrative and technical personnel of the WAPP Secretariat. These include courses on best practices, policy development, standard administrative and accounting processes and procedures, software application and study tours to America, Europe, and South Africa.
Because of USAID’s support, WAPP is now well resourced with a number of technically competent personnel who are playing various roles to help the region achieve a functional regional power market.
ECOWAS Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA)
ERERA supports ECOWAS member states to regulate cross-border electricity exchanges, create an enabling investment environment for regional power projects, and provide technical assistance to national electricity regulators.
In partnership with the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), ERERA is developing a Functional Model on System Reliability and the Regional Electricity Market and Gap Analysis Report, which will contribute to the enhancement of the regulatory framework for the regional power market. As a result of this support and those of other development partners, ERERA in collaboration with the ECOWAS West African Power Pool, successfully launched the first phase of the REM in June 2018, and developed Rules for Consolidation of Phase one.
ERERA also conducted complementary programs for national regulators in West Africa and an exchange program with various stakeholders in the electricity industry in the USA. The participants in the US exchange program were acquainted with good practices in international integrated power systems operations and management, including mitigation measures to reduce the risk of failure in the establishment of a REM.
ECOWAS CENTER FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY AND ENERGY EFFICIENCY (ECREEE)
ECREEE, through the ECOWAS Renewable Energy Fund (EREF), provides non-reimbursable grant contributions with other financial instruments to support the mobilization of private sector investment in renewable energy. USAID is supporting the third cycle of the EREF program, which was launched in 2019 and is currently being implemented in six West African countries. The program catalyzes investments in energy by facilitating access to finance for renewable energy projects, with a specific FOCUS on clean energy mini-grids (CEMGs). CEMGs are recognized as an important technology option to promote access to affordable electricity in rural areas.
ECREEE has succeeded in connecting 200,000 rural households to 470 CEMGs, with a total installed capacity of 45 MW. It’s regional efforts are supporting the commercial viability of CEMGs with EREF grants, contributing directly to the achievement of the rural renewable energy targets of the ECOWAS Renewable Energy Policy.
USAID’s West Africa energy programs aim to increase gender equality within the regional power institutions and promote gender-differentiated energy solutions. Photo credit: Power Africa
Inspecting solar solar panels at the Power Africa-supported Senergy I solar plant, a 29 MW facility that is currently the largest solar farm in West Africa. Photo credit: Xaume Olleros
USAID’s regional energy programming supports our partners to coordinate and commission the construction of transmission lines to establish a regional power market. Photo credit: Power Africa
Renewable energy for not-for-profit electric utility in Kansas
metric tons of CO2 saved per year
fuel-burning cars taken off road (equivalent)
central and western Kansas homes powered
construction jobs created
Site selection preliminary design
Permitting environmental studies
Land management biodiversity planning
Final engineering, financing construction
Sunflower Electric Power Corp., headquartered in Hays, Kansas, is a not-for-profit electric utility providing wholesale generation and transmission services to six member-owners serving in central and western Kansas. Sunflower Electric and Lightsource bp have a 25-year contract for clean, renewable electricity to provide affordable, local energy for electric cooperative members across Kansas.
The agreement is for 27.5MW of large-scale offsite solar, providing enough green electricity to power 5,165 homes across central and western Kansas every year. In addition to providing clean on-peak energy, the solar project is reducing loading on a transmission line that is nearing capacity, saving costs by deferring or ultimately cancelling the requirement for costly infrastructure upgrades.
The Johnson Corner solar project, the largest solar farm in Kansas, consists of 75,000 solar panels installed across 144 acres of land in Stanton County, 2 miles from Johnson City. Commercial operation commenced in April 2020.
MKEC, Sunflower Electric Power and Lightsource bp are incredibly proud of this solar project, and the opportunities it will offer the organisations and the local communities.
Information and resources
We’ve put together a collection of resources for anyone who’d like to know more about our MKEC/Sunflower Electric solar project:
Solar farm FAQs
We’ve put together a list of the most commonly asked questions, and their answers.
As the nation looks to transition to more forms of renewable energy, the country’s millions of acres of public lands could be key, drawing concerns over how local habitats could be impacted.
As the US Rushes After the Minerals for the Energy Transition, a 150-Year-Old Law Allows Mining Companies Free Rein on Public Lands
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GILBERT, Ariz.—Standing in front of a small crowd at a library in this suburb of Phoenix last month, officials from the Bureau of Land Management outlined a plan that could reshape the development of solar energy projects throughout the Western United States in the coming years as the nation transitions to more renewable energy sources.
In 2012, the BLM, which manages 245 million acres of land as part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, implemented the Western Solar Plan, allowing utility-scale solar energy projects to be built on large swaths of public land throughout the Southwest. The agency has now been tasked by the Interior Department with reviewing the plan, “which will help accelerate and continue momentum for the clean energy economy.”
“This is a tremendous opportunity to advance our national renewable energy goals,” Derek Eysenbach, an Arizona BLM project manager, said of the plan at the public meeting, which could add five states to the Western Solar Plan and reevaluate the amount of land available for utility-scale solar energy development.
But two considerations stand in the way: The question of what the country’s public lands are for and if they are the best places to put utility-scale solar projects.
The issues aren’t new. For decades, conservationists have fought to save public lands from development and industries that threaten habitats untouched by humans. Editors at the New York Times in 2010 called the debate between preserving public lands and creating more renewable energy sources a “green civil war.” As the nation begins to accelerate its transition away from the fossil fuels responsible for climate change—which threatens the health of humans, the livability of communities and landscapes across the world—public lands are once again being offered up to energy companies.
As an agency, BLM isn’t just responsible for helping foster the nation’s energy transition or allowing private companies to use the lands for commercial gain. It’s also tasked with preserving public lands for natural, cultural or historical reasons.
Crucial to the development of solar projects, conservationists and public land experts said, is making sure that if they must be on public lands, they are done in the areas where they will do the least harm to habitats and species, which means working with local stakeholders on alternative plans that avoid the worst impacts to nearby environments.
“One of the most challenging issues that those of us in some form of conservation are facing is that we are finding ourselves often on the opposite side of these battles about (renewable) energy projects,” said David Robinson, the director of conservation advocacy at the Tucson Audubon Society.
The Tucson Audubon Society, he said, won’t take an absolutist position on any project and recognizes that hard choices will have to be made when it comes to protecting the environment and growing the amount of clean energy the nation generates, including with solar projects on public lands. That means project developers, the BLM, conservation groups, tribes and others will have to find compromises.
“What delays these projects is when the companies behind them do not engage and the agencies who will be responsible for reviewing them and approving them, don’t engage the full range of stakeholders right from the start,” Robinson said.
Dustin Mulvaney, a professor in environmental studies at San Jose State University whose research focuses on sustainable and just transitions to solar power, agreed.
What stands in the way of projects getting permitted isn’t environmental reviews that each project must go through, but an unwillingness to find alternatives different parties can agree on.
But more participation from the public won’t fully solve the issue, he said.
“At a very basic level, it’s just the development of relatively intact or ecologically valuable lands in a landscape that has some pretty degraded lands already” that could be developed to allow preservation of the more pristine tracts, Mulvaney said. “That’s just something that seems somewhat intractable and unresolvable.”
Notable things have changed since the Western Solar Plan was implemented in 2012.
Solar technology has improved, its costs have gone down and the federal government is pushing to expand clean energy development across the country to address climate change, leading to almost exponential increases in the development of solar energy projects. In December, the Interior Department announced the BLM review of the Western Solar Plan, “which will help accelerate and continue momentum for the clean energy economy.”
“We take seriously our responsibility to manage the nation’s public lands responsibly and with an eye toward the increasing impacts of the climate crisis,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Laura Daniel-Davis said in the press release. “The power and potential of the clean energy future is an undeniable and critical part of that work.”
The initial 2012 plan included six Southwestern states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah—and created three designations for the lands: 285,000 acres of “solar energy zones” where development of the resource is prioritized; 19.3 million acres of land that the BLM will consider for solar projects if developers apply to build projects on them; and 78.6 million acres completely excluded from solar development.
In the decade since the plan was implemented, the BLM has approved permits for 41 projects across 75,000 acres that, as of December 2022, can produce 9,272 megawatts of power, according to data from the agency.
The BLM is now considering expanding the solar plan to include Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and Wyoming, reevaluating the land designations established in 2012 that could potentially expand the number of acres available in the states that are already part of it, changing how many megawatts projects need to produce to qualify for inclusion and finding ways to further incentivize development in priority areas.
Jordan Macknick, the lead energy-water-land analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, said creating a uniform approach to developing solar across public lands in the West will be hard given how different the landscapes are across the region.
And regardless of how much the process is standardized, developing renewable energy projects on public lands will take time. Public meetings like the one in Gilbert are just the beginning of the procedures that develop environmental impact statements for projects and get feedback from the public.
Mulvaney, the environmental studies professor, said that “the historic use of public lands by energy industries” has led clean energy companies to say “It’s our turn now.”
To understand the conflict these projects can create, he said, you have to understand the history of the BLM, which is largely one of allowing the use of public lands by cattle ranchers, hard rock miners, and oil, gas and coal companies.
‘The Ultimate Muddled Agency’
It wasn’t until the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 that the agency also began considering multiple uses for public lands, including retaining them for conservation, cultural and recreational purposes rather than just opening them to grazing and mining, said Ken Rait, the U.S. Public Lands and Rivers Conservation project director at Pew Charitable Trusts. That mindset didn’t take root at BLM until the 1990s, and was largely undone by the Trump administration years later, Rait said.
“For decades, the Bureau of Land Management was largely a land disposal agency, and an agency that managed the public domain for the benefit of the livestock and the mining industry essentially,” he said. “There was no consideration of conservation values whatsoever.”
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The BLM still largely works to the benefit of the livestock and oil and gas industries; the Center for Biological Diversity found that the Biden administration is outpacing the Trump administration in approving drilling permits for oil and gas companies in their first two years of office. Nonetheless, the FLPMA helped change who gets to benefit from public lands and determine the best use of the millions of largely undisturbed acres.
Crucial to understanding the BLM, Mulvaney said, is that it is a federal agency without a central mission guiding its choices. The BLM’s tasks include conserving lands with natural or cultural significance, providing pastures for grazing, opening areas with valuable underground resources to mining, supporting recreational activities and now, developing plans for solar energy projects. “They’re the ultimate muddled agency because of all the different forces pulling it in different directions,” Mulvaney said.
Siting Projects Where There’s the Least Conflict
Solutions to conflicts over plans proposed for public lands are always nuanced, Rait said, and never make everyone happy.
Public lands, however, aren’t the only places solar projects can be developed. As opposed to grazing or mining, solar energy installations can go up in urban areas. They can be placed over parking lots, on the roofs of warehouses or on farms. “It’s important not to view public lands as the only place where these kinds of things can and should occur,” Rait said.
The solar energy zones designated by the BLM’s Western Solar Plan are intended to cause the least amount of conflict around the development of public lands, Mulvaney said, “but the least conflict lands, in general, are not on public lands at all.”
In a 2019 paper Mulvaney co-authored looking at the economic benefit of siting solar projects in California areas where they would have the least impact on other values found that development on private lands, typically on former farmland in the San Joaquin Valley close to already established energy transmission lines, were the quickest to get permitted and cost the least to get done.
“A farmer is not going to sue another farmer to not have a project built,” Mulvaney said, but on public lands, the possibility is much higher that litigation and other actions could delay a project and increase its costs.
Macknick, the NREL analyst, said from the perspective of the solar industry, the best lands are ones that are large, flat, close to transmission lines and roads and have few landowners in the area. Put those criteria together, he said, and “it sounds like current agricultural farms.”
Public lands, he added, also have a lot of the same characteristics.
BLM of course has no say on what happens on private lands, but even then, Mulvaney said, the agency’s insistence that large amounts of public lands be used for solar projects is based on antiquated thinking.
Early applications for permits to develop solar projects sent to BLM were based on concentrated solar power systems, as opposed to the photovoltaic solar panels that are common from residential roofs to farm fields. Concentrated solar power systems, which require more land and aren’t usable in a more urban environment, remain rare.
Public lands will likely remain a key piece in generating more solar energy for the U.S.
The Solar Futures Study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy and NREL found that, at its current rate of growth, solar energy generation in the U.S. would go from 80 gigawatts to 380 gigawatts by 2035. That would require a total of more than over 4 million acres of land.
There isn’t enough land in urban areas to keep up with the demand for utility-scale solar projects, Macknick said, and it is also much more expensive than more remote terrain. Plus, he said, building projects on huge plots of land, whether they be public or private, is cheaper and easier to accomplish.
Though solar energy is not as harmful to the overall environment as fossil fuels, they still can have a significant impact on local habitats, conservationists said.
The projects can fragment habitats for wildlife. They sometimes involve bulldozing land and expanses of blue photovoltaic panels can be mistaken by birds for bodies of water, leading them to attempt to land on them. Birds confused by this lake effect can die on impact or when they are unable to get airborne again.
Macknick agreed that utility-scale solar projects can fragment habitats, especially for larger wildlife, but the practices with the greatest impact, such as razing the land, are no longer used. When built right, large solar developments can minimize impacts on the local environment, he said, by making sure not to compact the soil and ensuring vegetation can grow underneath.
Going forward, he said, it’ll be key to find “dual-use solutions,” where solar projects can be sited and allow for grazing or farming operations to continue underneath. Communication will be key in making sure the benefits of a project are clearly presented, he said.
Ilene Anderson first became concerned about solar development on public lands around 2009.
California had in recent years implemented its Renewable Portfolio Standard, which requires electric companies “to increase the amount of renewable energy they procure until 50 percent of their retail sales are from eligible renewable energy resources” by the end of 2030.
And under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 passed by the Obama administration, the federal government provided tens of billions of dollars to clean energy development in the country.
“That really set off a rush of speculators in California” with applications for solar projects proposed across millions of acres of land in the state, said Anderson, a senior scientist and public lands desert director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
But early projects quickly ran into roadblocks: environmental screenings. Developers were looking at how close the locations were to transmission lines and ample access to sunlight. “They didn’t do a very good screen for issues that would cost them time and money” in the form of environmental concerns, Anderson said.
The developers, however, quickly learned from their mistakes, she said, and “got with the program.” This resulted in the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, she said, which streamlined 10.8 million acres of public lands in California for renewable energy development while conserving unique ecosystems.
“We came out with a plan that was not perfect, no one was happy with it, but nobody’s litigating it either,” she said. “That was a sign that you know, everybody can be uncomfortably OK with the process.”
Anderson said the Center’s position is to create “sacrifice zones”: place as many of the solar projects as close together near transmission lines as possible to avoid further habitat damage and fragmentation across the region.
Most parties now realize that there will have to be painful tradeoffs.
“If we lose the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, but we save the coral reefs, I’ll be able to sleep at night,” said Robinson.
Roy W. Howard investigative fellow
Wyatt Myskow covers environmental news in the Western U.S. from Phoenix as the Roy W. Howard investigative fellow. Wyatt graduated from Arizona State University with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and has previously reported for The Arizona Republic, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The State Press. He has covered local government, development news, education issues and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Solar and wind farms can hurt the environment. A new study offers solutions
Let’s say we can solve the climate crisis. We can build all the clean energy infrastructure we need to replace fossil fuels over the next 30 years, and we can do it without triggering blackouts or causing electricity costs to rise too much.
Assuming that’s possible — would you be willing to pay 3% more on your energy bills to protect the natural world?
I didn’t pluck that number out of thin air. It comes from a new study by the Nature Conservancy, an environmental advocacy group, finding the American West can generate enough renewable power to tackle climate change even if some of its most ecologically valuable landscapes are placed off-limits to solar and wind farms — without causing costs to spiral out of control.
It’s an optimistic outlook — and a potent reminder of one of the biggest obstacles to renewable energy.
Yes, solar and wind have become just about the cheapest sources of new electricity on the market. And, yes, they were expanding rapidly even before President Biden signed a landmark climate bill in August that should supercharge their growth.
But finding places to build all the clean energy we’ll need to limit global warming isn’t getting any easier.
As developers flood rural communities and remote landscapes with proposals for solar fields and wind turbines, they often face intense opposition from conservationists dedicated to protecting habitat for migratory birds, sage grouse and desert tortoises — and from local residents who see industrial energy infrastructure as a threat to their small-town way of life.
That kind of opposition could slow or block clean energy development, resulting in climate catastrophe.
All of which brings us back to the Nature Conservancy study, which is currently finishing up peer review.
The study took an expansive look at the long-term clean energy needs of 11 Western states — including the charging needs of tens of millions of electric cars — and the land available to produce that clean energy. After running a series of gigantic models, the authors concluded that powering the West could require 26 million acres — an area roughly half the size of Utah.
But that finding assumed the only places off-limits to solar and wind farms were areas already protected by law, such as national parks and wildlife refuges. So the Nature Conservancy ran the models again, this time blocking renewable energy development in many other areas — including wetlands, critical habitat for endangered species and other lands identified by Nature Conservancy scientists as valuable for wildlife and humans, such as migration corridors and the best agricultural soils.
This time, the models spat out substantially different results. Under those limits, the West could meet its clean power needs with just 21 million acres of solar, wind and other zero-carbon resources. The overall cost would be 268 billion through 2050 — just 3% higher than the estimated 260-billion price tag without the additional land constraints.
Nicole Hill, the Nature Conservancy’s project manager, told me she was “genuinely surprised” the cost difference was so small. It’s a big deal, she said, because it means voters and politicians don’t have to choose between climate action and biodiversity.
“There is plenty of land to do this work,” she said.
The study mapped out several strategies for getting from 26 million acres down to 21 million.
One of them is building fewer wind farms in the West’s windiest states, particularly Wyoming, and more solar farms in the sunny desert Southwest. Wind farms require a lot more land area to produce the same amount of power, in part because wind turbines need to be spaced far apart. Solar farms have a smaller overall footprint by comparison.
The windiest spots also tend to be far from major population centers. Solar farms can be built closer to big cities with the biggest energy needs, including Los Angeles and Phoenix, meaning they require fewer miles of habitat-disrupting power lines.
Another key strategy: building more solar panels and wind turbines on agricultural land.
The Nature Conservancy reached a similar conclusion in a California-specific study a few years ago. The basic idea is that hundreds of millions of acres in the West have already been plowed and generally torn up, and it makes more sense to convert some of those lands to renewable energy than to pave over undisturbed habitat — especially in farm belts such as California’s San Joaquin Valley, where climate-fueled megadrought is leaving less water available for irrigating fields of crops.
Of course, reality is more complicated than a bunch of computer models. Agriculture is the economic cornerstone for many rural communities, not to mention the source of the food we eat. Across the country, small-town residents have rallied to protest proposed solar projects in particular, since those facilities often — but don’t always — preclude farming.
The Nature Conservancy took those concerns into account, excluding federally designated “prime farmland” from the modeling alongside valuable habitat. That left plenty of lower-quality agricultural areas for development, the authors said.
“Not all irrigated lands are created equal,” said Nels Johnson, the Nature Conservancy’s North America energy program director. “Some are on marginal soils, and they’re producing really low-value crops, while others are on really high-value soils.”
This kind of ecologically friendly energy strategy could have benefits beyond protecting wildlife.
For instance, developers who seek to build in less sensitive spots might be able to get government permits more quickly while reducing the likelihood of lawsuits. An earlier Nature Conservancy study, focused on California, found that solar farms proposed for lands with lower biodiversity got permitted nearly three times faster, helping accelerate the clean energy transition.
The key to making this all work in practice is collaboration and planning, the Nature Conservancy says. Western states must work together to map out where clean energy should be built and which lands should be protected, much like California did with the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, Johnson told me.
“When you get a more collaborative approach to planning, you get fewer lawsuits, less conflict,” he said. “When people get a chance to help define what the future looks like, they’re much less likely to be resistant.”
Still, it’s just about impossible to build a solar or wind farm — or any other clean energy project — without at least some opposition. Collaboration and planning can go a long way, but they’ll never avert every land-use conflict.
It’s also important to acknowledge the tradeoffs inherent to the Nature Conservancy’s vision. If companies build fewer wind farms in Wyoming and more solar farms in California, it could be good for golden eagles and other birds flying through Wyoming — and bad for California desert species such as fringe-toed lizards and bighorn sheep.
“There’s no totally free lunch when it comes to deploying the level of infrastructure that we’re talking about,” Johnson said.
Still, there are ways to limit the damage. The more solar installations get built on lands already degraded by human activity — such as abandoned mines, Superfund sites, landfills and railroad corridors — the less pristine desert will be needed.
Solar panels on rooftops, warehouses and parking lots can also limit the need for desert development. The Nature Conservancy’s study assumes 35% of the West’s overall rooftop solar potential will actually get installed by 2050 — an ambitious target, although some rooftop solar supporters might argue we can do even better.
“Every megawatt [of rooftop] is one less megawatt we’re fighting over in an agricultural area or a natural area,” Johnson said.
Again, reality is more complicated than a computer model, especially once politics and economic self-interest come into play. Just see the many times unionized electrical workers have lobbied against rooftop solar in California because most rooftop solar companies are nonunion shops, and those union workers want to create more jobs for themselves building large solar farms.
Historical factors could also make it harder to balance climate action and conservation.
Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University who has collaborated previously with the Nature Conservancy, told me he was encouraged by the new study’s findings. But he also pointed to the reality that solar and wind energy developers are constantly looking to build projects on public lands, including some of the highest-quality habitat left in the West — despite the opposition they often face from conservationists, and the seemingly not-so-high costs of building elsewhere.
One possible reason, Mulvaney said, is the existence of long-distance power lines that previously carried coal power to L.A. and other cities. Many of those lines were built across public lands — and now they have spare capacity as coal plants shut down.
Tapping into those lines is often the cheapest way for solar and wind developers to ship electricity to urban customers — as long as they build projects close enough to connect. In other words, as long as they build on the surrounding public lands.
“It opens up all these conflicts along these pathways,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney is hopeful the Nature Conservancy study will help chart a more sustainable future. He said the research could be especially useful for finding consensus on where to build new power lines — one of the most difficult and controversial aspects of the clean energy transition. The Nature Conservancy estimates a need for 6,259 miles of new power-line corridors.
That’s a lot of power lines. Then again, the U.S. did manage to build nearly 50,000 miles of interstate highways.
I’ll be continuing to cover climate change, clean energy and land use as part of our Repowering the West series. As always, please subscribe to The Times to support our work. And if you’ve got any questions, send me an email. I’ll do my best to reply.
On that note, here’s what else is happening around the West:
Remember from 2013 through 2015, when California had its three driest years on record? Well, that record didn’t last long. The “water year” came to an end Sept. 30, and officials say the state’s last three cycles around the sun were its driest since recordkeeping began in 1896, my colleague Hayley Smith reports. And while homes and farms alike have been forced to conserve, the lack of water has had its harshest consequences on California’s rivers and streams, and on the fish and other wildlife they support, Smith writes. If you’re a Los Angeles resident looking for more ways to cut back, and you live in a single-family home, you can now buy a device that tracks your water use in real time for just 24, a steep discount, Alexandra E. Petri writes. And if you’re looking for additional relief from high water bills, tough luck — CalMatters reporter Rachel Becker notes on that Gov. Gavin Newsom “vetoed a bill to establish a water rate assistance program, citing no identified funding source.”
The challenges of transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy could help determine which party controls Congress the next two years. That’s especially true in a crucial House of Representatives district straddling Orange and San Diego counties, where high gas prices, last year’s oil spill and California’s electric-vehicle ambitions have become key issues as Republican Brian Maryott tries to unseat Democratic incumbent Mike Levin, The Times’ Seema Mehta reports. If you hadn’t noticed, gas are absurd in California right now, hitting a record 6.49 a gallon in Los Angeles this week as oil refinery outages reduced supply, Grace Toohey writes. And speaking of the Orange County oil spill, the undersea pipeline at fault could be operational again by early next year, Christopher Goffard reports.
Will scientists be able to save California’s forests from going up in smoke? They’ve got the tools, but time is short, and it will cost a lot of money. That’s the takeaway from this illuminating story by my colleague Alex Wigglesworth, with graphics and illustrations by Paul Duginksi and Szu Yu Chen, showing how prescribed burns and careful thinning can create healthier forests more resilient to wildfire, drought and bark beetle infestation. Even in a best-case scenario, though, the Golden State’s beloved forests will see dramatic change as the planet continues to heat up. The Times’ Doug Smith describes some of those changes in a beautiful first-person piece about his lifelong relationship with the Sierra Nevada. “That’s the thing about the Sierra — and perhaps about getting older. Things evolve, sometimes deteriorate. But some things won’t change in my lifetime and many lifetimes ahead, and there’s comfort in that,” he writes.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
The small Navajo Nation community of Westwater is finally getting electricity after decades of waiting — and running water could be next, in part due to millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds. Details here from Shannon Mullane at the Colorado Sun. Yes, it’s probably pretty hard for most of us to imagine living without power in the United States, but it’s a real problem for certain low-income communities, especially communities of color — even here in Los Angeles, where some activists say the Department of Water and Power should permanently end utility shutoffs for residents who can’t afford to pay their bills, as Erin Stone reports for LAist. On the other end of the economic spectrum, people living in mega-mansions can run up monthly electric bills into the tens of thousands of dollars. My colleague Jack Flemming explains how that’s even possible.
Pacific Gas Electric says it’s selling a 49.9% stake in its power plants (except the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant) to help finance wildfire safety and clean energy projects. Here’s the story from Reuters on PGE’s latest shift in strategy, as the beleaguered company tries to stop sparking deadly fires and invest in the power-grid upgrades California will need to replace gasoline-fueled cars with electric vehicles. In other PGE news, former executives agreed to a 117-million settlement over deadly fires in 2017 and 2018, after being sued by a victim trust that claimed the blazes were a direct result of the former executives’ actions, Nathan Solis reports.
“As battery storage matures in real time, its social license depends on its ability to fail without hurting people.” So writes Canary Media’s Julian Spector, in a fascinating story about what Tesla and other energy storage companies are doing to stop the battery fires that have plagued the nation’s largest complex of lithium-ion batteries, along California’s Central Coast at Moss Landing. The most recent fire was just two weeks ago. So far, the fires haven’t been especially dangerous — unlike a 2019 incident in Arizona that sent four emergency responders to the hospital — but they’re a serious growing pain the energy industry will need to figure out.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has broken with the California Democratic Party and many environmentalists to oppose Proposition 30, which would raise taxes on the wealthy to fund electric car chargers and wildfire resilience. L.A. Times columnist George Skelton applauded Newsom’s stance, writing that Proposition 30 “would embroider California’s reputation as a far-left state drawn to tax hikes rather than setting spending priorities.” (A new poll co-sponsored by The Times shows 49% support for the ballot measure, with 37% opposed and 14% undecided.) Newsom is also calling on lawmakers to impose a “windfall tax” on the oil industry, blaming the recent rise in gas in part on “oil company extortion,” Jonah Valdez reports. At the same time, the governor vetoed a bill that would have aligned state transportation funding with climate change goals — meaning, as my colleague Liam Dillon notes on. that “all the major legislation that aimed to limit freeway expansion in California this year failed.”
In her first day on the bench, Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson led the questioning in a consequential case to determine the scope of the Clean Water Act. The justices are expected to rule on whether the law protects thousands of intermittent streams, arroyos, wetlands, marshes and other waterways, with huge implications for Western water supplies and ecosystems, Jonathan Thompson writes for High Country News. If the high court limits the Clean Water Act’s scope, up to 66% of California’s streams and rivers — and 94% of Arizona’s — could be removed from federal oversight, Thompson notes. The Times’ David G. Savage watched the arguments before the conservative-leaning court and writes that it’s unclear how the justices will rule.
than 10% of the Colorado River’s water is lost to evaporation, seepage and other factors each year — but due to a “historical quirk,” the Lower Basin states of California, Arizona and Nevada don’t have to count evaporative losses against their water allocations. With the Colorado River in crisis, the federal government is finally telling those states to prepare for significant cuts to account for evaporation, KUNC’s Luke Runyon reports. Elsewhere on the Colorado, California’s independent Salton Sea panel finally has recommendations for how to support the dying lake. The panel advised against importing water from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez but supported the idea of building a large desalination plant to filter the increasingly salty lake water. details here from the The Times’ Ian James.
AROUND THE WEST
The world’s most promising research into “enhanced” geothermal energy is happening outside Milford, Utah. The Salt Lake Tribune’s Tim Fitzpatrick wrote about the University of Utah’s federally funded FORGE lab, which is trying to make round-the-clock, climate-friendly geothermal power from deep beneath the ground easier to access in more places by adapting fracking technology from the oil and gas industry. Geothermal energy is already produced in large quantities at California’s Salton Sea, where companies are now trying to produce lithium for energy storage systems as well, as I’ve reported previously. But at least one lithium effort hit a roadblock earlier this year, when the federal government rescinded a grant to Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, as Reuters’ Ernest Scheyder reports. The hot, corrosive Salton Sea geothermal brine continues to be hellishly difficult for companies to handle.
A New Mexico coal plant that once powered Disneyland closed this week, bringing the American West one step closer to ending its reliance on the dirtiest fossil fuel. New Mexico Political Report’s Hannah Grover talked with longtime employees of San Juan Generating Station about what they’ll do next, and the difficulty of finding jobs as steady or as high-paying as the ones they’ve worked for decades. She also explored the long history of clean air activists trying to block the plant’s construction and ultimately get it shut down. For a broader rundown of Western coal plant closures — and a list of which plants still don’t have retirement dates — see my story from earlier this year.
The first-ever video has been captured of a mountain lion preying on a wild burro in Death Valley National Park. My colleague Grace Toohey has the story, including some nuanced discussion of the role invasive burros play in the park.
ONE MORE THING
Journalists typically aren’t supposed to take public stances on legislation and policy proposals. But with the 50th anniversary of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail coming up, there’s bipartisan legislation in Congress that would direct federal agencies to actually finish building it. As an avid hiker who’s spent a bunch of time reporting along the Continental Divide, this one sounds pretty good to me.
We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter, or previous ones, please consider forwarding it to your friends and colleagues. For more climate and environment news, follow me on @Sammy_Roth.
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Sammy Roth covers energy for the Los Angeles Times and writes the weekly Boiling Point newsletter. He previously reported for the Desert Sun in Palm Springs. He grew up in Westwood and would very much like to see the Dodgers win the World Series again.
Solar sprawl is tearing up the Mojave Desert. Is there a better way?
America needs lots of clean power, fast. Should it go on public lands or on rooftops?
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High above the Las Vegas Strip, solar panels blanketed the roof of Mandalay Bay Convention Center — 26,000 of them, rippling across an area larger than 20 football fields.
From this vantage point, the sun-dappled Mandalay Bay and Delano hotels dominated the horizon, emerging like comically large golden scepters from the glittering black panels. Snow-tipped mountains rose to the west.
It was a cold winter morning in the Mojave Desert. But there was plenty of sunlight to supply the solar array.
“This is really an ideal location,” said Michael Gulich, vice president of sustainability at MGM Resorts International.
The same goes for the rest of Las Vegas and its sprawling suburbs.
Sin City already has more solar panels per person than any major U.S. metro outside Hawaii, according to one analysis. And the city is bursting with single-family homes, warehouses and parking lots untouched by solar.
There’s enormous opportunity to lower household utility bills and cut climate pollution — without damaging wildlife habitat or disrupting treasured landscapes.
But that hasn’t stopped corporations from making plans to carpet the desert surrounding Las Vegas with dozens of giant solar fields — some of them designed to supply power to California. The Biden administration has fueled that growth, taking steps to encourage solar and wind energy development across vast stretches of public lands in Nevada and other Western states.
Those energy generators could imperil rare plants and slow-footed tortoises already threatened by rising temperatures.
They could also lessen the death and suffering from the worsening heat waves, fires, droughts and storms of the climate crisis.
Researchers have found there’s not nearly enough space on rooftops to supply all U.S. electricity — especially as more people drive electric cars. Even an analysis funded by rooftop solar advocates and installers found that the most cost-effective route to phasing out fossil fuels involves six times more power from big solar and wind farms than from smaller local solar systems.
But the exact balance has yet to be determined. And Nevada is ground zero for figuring it out.
The outcome could be determined, in part, by billionaire investor Warren Buffett.
The so-called Oracle of Omaha owns NV Energy, the monopoly utility that supplies electricity to most Nevadans. NV Energy and its investor-owned utility brethren across the country can earn huge amounts of money paving over public lands with solar and wind farms and building long-distance transmission lines to cities.
But by regulatory design, those companies don’t profit off rooftop solar. And in many cases, they’ve fought to limit rooftop solar — which can reduce the need for large-scale infrastructure and result in lower returns for investors.
Mike Troncoso remembers the exact date of Nevada’s rooftop solar reckoning.
It was Dec. 23, 2015, and he was working for SolarCity. The rooftop installer abruptly ceased operations in the Silver State after NV Energy helped persuade officials to slash a program that pays solar customers for energy they send to the power grid.
“I was out in the field working, and we got a call: ‘Stop everything you’re doing, don’t finish the project, come to the warehouse,’” Troncoso said. “It was right before Christmas, and they said, ‘Hey, guys, unfortunately we’re getting shut down.’”
After a public outcry, Nevada lawmakers partly reversed the reductions to rooftop solar incentives. Since then, NV Energy and the rooftop solar industry have maintained an uneasy political ceasefire. Installations now exceed pre-2015 levels.
Today, Troncoso is Nevada branch manager for Sunrun, the nation’s largest rooftop solar installer. The company has enough work in the state to support a dozen crews, each named for a different casino. On a chilly winter morning before sunrise, they prepared for the day ahead — laying out steel rails, hooking up microinverters and loading panels onto powder-blue trucks.
But even if Sunrun’s business continues to grow, it won’t eliminate the need for large solar farms in the desert.
Some habitat destruction is unavoidable — at least if we want to break our fossil fuel addiction. The key questions are: How many big solar farms are needed, and where should they be built? Can they be engineered to coexist with animals and plants?
And if not, should Americans be willing to sacrifice a few endangered species in the name of tackling climate change?
To answer those questions, Los Angeles Times journalists spent a week in southern Nevada, touring solar construction sites, hiking up sand dunes and off-roading through the Mojave. We spoke with NV Energy executives, conservation activists battling Buffett’s company and desert rats who don’t want to see their favorite off-highway vehicle trails cut off by solar farms.
Odds are, no one will get everything they want.
The tortoise in the coal mine
Biologist Bre Moyle easily spotted the small yellow flag affixed to a scraggly creosote bush — one of many hardy plants sprouting from the caliche soil, surrounded by rows of gleaming steel trusses that would soon hoist solar panels toward the sky.
Moyle leaned down for a closer look, gently pulling aside branches to reveal a football-sized hole in the ground. It was the entrance to a desert tortoise burrow — one of thousands catalogued by her employer, Primergy Solar, during construction of one of the nation’s largest solar farms on public lands outside Las Vegas.
“I wouldn’t stand on this side of it,” Moyle advised us. “If you walk back there, you could collapse it, potentially.”
I’d seen plenty of solar construction sites in my decade reporting on energy. But none like this.
Instead of tearing out every cactus and other plant and leveling the land flat — the “blade and grade” method — Primergy had left much of the native vegetation in place and installed trusses of different heights to match the ground’s natural contours. The company had temporarily relocated more than 1,600 plants to an on-site nursery, with plans to put them back later.
The Oakland-based developer also went to great lengths to safeguard desert tortoises — an iconic reptile protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, and the biggest environmental roadblock to building solar in the Mojave.
Desert tortoises are sensitive to global warming, residential sprawl and other human encroachment on their habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated tortoise populations fell by more than one-third between 2004 and 2014.
Scientists consider much of the Primergy site high-quality tortoise habitat. It also straddles a connectivity corridor that could help the reptiles seek safer haven as hotter weather and more extreme droughts make their current homes increasingly unlivable.
Before Primergy started building, the company scoured the site and removed 167 tortoises, with plans to let them return and live among the solar panels once the heavy lifting is over. Two-thirds of the project site will be repopulated with tortoises.
Workers removed more tortoises during construction. As of January, the company knew of just two tortoises killed — one that may have been hit by a car, and another that may have been entombed in its burrow by roadwork, then eaten by a kit fox.
Primergy Vice President Thomas Regenhard acknowledged the company can’t build solar here without doing any harm to the ecosystem — or spurring opposition from conservation activists. But as he watched union construction workers lift panels onto trusses, he said Primergy is “making the best of the worst-case situation” for solar opponents.
“What we’re trying to do is make it the least impactful on the environment and natural resources,” he said. “What we’re also doing is we’re sharing that knowledge, so that these projects can be built in a better way moving forward.”
The company isn’t saving tortoises out of the goodness of its profit-seeking heart.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management conditioned its approval of the solar farm, called Gemini, on a long list of environmental protection measures — and only after some bureau staffers seemingly contemplated rejecting the project entirely.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the conservation group Defenders of Wildlife show the bureau’s Las Vegas field office drafted several versions of a “record of decision” that would have denied the permit application for Gemini. The drafts listed several objections, including harm to desert tortoises, loss of space for off-road vehicle drivers and disturbance of the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, which runs through the project site.
Separately, Primergy reached a legal settlement with conservationists — who challenged the project’s federal approval in court — in which the company agreed to additional steps to protect tortoises and a plant known as the three-corner milkvetch.
The company estimates just 2.5% of the project site will be permanently disturbed — far less than the 33% allowed by Primergy’s federal permit. Regenhard is hopeful the lessons learned here will inform future solar development on public lands.
“This is something new. So we’re refining a lot of the processes,” he said. “We’re not perfect. We’re still learning.”
By the time construction wraps this fall, 1.8 million panels will cover nearly 4,000 football fields’ worth of land, just off the 15 Freeway. They’ll be able to produce 690 megawatts of power — as much as 115,000 typical home solar systems. And they’ll be paired with batteries, to store energy and help NV Energy customers keep running their air conditioners after sundown.
Unlike many solar fields, Gemini is close to the population it will serve — just a few dozen miles from the Strip. And the affected landscape is far from visually stunning, with none of the red-rock majesty found at nearby Valley of Fire State Park.
But desert tortoises don’t care if a place looks cool to humans. They care if it’s good tortoise habitat.
Moyle, Primergy’s environmental services manager, pointed to a small black structure at the bottom of a fence along the site’s edge — a shade shelter for tortoises. Workers installed them every 800 feet, so that if any relocated reptiles try to return to the solar farm too early, they don’t die pacing along the fence in the heat.
“They have a really, really good sense of direction,” Moyle said. “They know where their homes are. They want to come back.”
Primergy will study what happens when tortoises do come back. Will they benefit from the shade of the solar panels? Or will they struggle to survive on the industrialized landscape?
And looming over those uncertainties, a more existential query: With global warming beginning to devastate human and animal life around the world, should we really be slowing or stopping solar development to save a single type of reptile?
Moyle was ready with an answer: Tortoises are a keystone species. If they’re doing well, it’s a good sign of a healthy ecosystem in which other desert creatures — such as burrowing owls, kit foxes and American badgers — are positioned to thrive, too.
And as the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, human survival is inextricably linked with a healthy natural world.
“We take one thing out, we don’t know what sort of disastrous effect it’s going to have on everything else,” Moyle said.
We do, however, know the consequences of relying on fossil fuels: entire towns burning to the ground, Lake Mead three-quarters empty, elderly Americans baking to death in their overheated homes. With worse to come.
The shifting sands of time
A few miles south, another solar project was rising in the desert. This one looked different.
A fleet of bulldozers, scrapers, excavators and graders was nearly done flattening the land — a beige moonscape devoid of cacti and creosote. The solar panel support trusses were all the same height, forming an eerily rigid silver sea.
When I asked Carl Glass — construction manager for DEPCOM Power, the contractor building this project for Buffett’s NV Energy — why workers couldn’t leave vegetation in place like at Gemini, he offered a simple answer: drainage. Allowing the land to retain its natural contours, he said, would make it difficult to move stormwater off the site during summer monsoons.
Safety was another consideration, said Dani Strain, NV Energy’s senior manager for the project. Blading and grading the land meant workers wouldn’t have to carry solar panels and equipment across ground studded with tripping hazards.
“It’s nicer for the environment not to do it,” Strain said. “But it creates other problems. You can’t have everything.”
This kind of solar project has typified development in the Mojave Desert.
And it helps explain why the Center for Biological Diversity’s Patrick Donnelly has fought so hard to limit that development.
The morning after touring the solar construction sites, we joined Donnelly for a hike up Big Dune, a giant pile of sand covering five square miles and towering 500 feet above the desert floor, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The sun was just beginning its ascent over the Mojave, bathing the sand in a smooth umber glow beneath s of wispy Cloud.
On weekends, Donnelly said, the dune can be overrun by thousands of off-road vehicles. But on this day, it was quiet.
Energy companies have proposed more than a dozen solar farms on public lands surrounding Big Dune — some with overlapping footprints. Donnelly doesn’t oppose all of them. But he thinks federal agencies should limit solar to the least ecologically sensitive parts of Nevada, instead of letting companies pitch projects almost anywhere they choose.
“Developers are looking at this as low-hanging fruit,” he said. “The idea is, this is where California can build all of its solar.”
We trekked slowly up the dune, our bodies casting long shadows in the early morning light. When we took a breather and looked back down, a trail of footprints marked our path. Donnelly assured us a windy day would wipe them away.
“This is why I live here, man,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful place on Earth, in my mind.”
Donnelly broke his back in a rock-climbing accident, so he used a walking stick to scale the dune. He lives not far from here, at the edge of Death Valley National Park, and works as the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity’s Great Basin director.
As we resumed our journey, the wind blowing hard, I asked Donnelly to rank the top human threats to the Mojave. He was quick to answer: The climate crisis was No. 1, followed by housing sprawl, solar development and off-road vehicles.
“There’s no good solar project in the desert. But there’s less bad,” he said. “And we’re at a point now where we have to settle for less bad, because the alternatives are more bad: more coal, more gas, climate apocalypse.”
That hasn’t stopped Donnelly and his colleagues from fighting renewable energy projects they fear would wipe out entire species — even little-known plants and animals with tiny ranges, such as Tiehm’s buckwheat and the Dixie Valley toad.
“I’m not a religious guy,” Donnelly said. “But all God’s creatures great and small.”
After a steep stretch of sand, we stopped along a ridge with sweeping views. To our west were the Funeral Mountains, across the California state line in Death Valley National Park — and far beyond them Mt. Whitney, its snow-covered facade just barely visible. To our east was Highway 95, cutting across the Amargosa Valley en route from Las Vegas to Reno.
It’s along this highway that so many developers want to build.
“We would be in a sea of solar right now,” Donnelly said.
Having heard plenty of rural residents say they don’t want to look at such a sea, I asked Donnelly if this was a bad spot for solar because it would ruin the glorious views. He told me he never makes that argument, “because honestly, views aren’t really the primary concern at this moment. The primary concern is stopping the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis.”
“There are certain places where we shouldn’t put solar because it’s a wild and undisturbed landscape,” he said.
As far as he’s concerned, though, the Amargosa Valley isn’t one of those landscapes, what with Highway 95 running through it. The same goes for Dry Lake Valley, where NV Energy’s solar construction site is already surrounded by energy infrastructure.
What Donnelly would like to see is better planning.
He pointed to California, where state and federal officials spent eight years crafting a desert conservation plan that allows solar and wind farms across a few hundred thousand acres while setting aside millions more for protection. He thinks a similar process is crucial in Nevada, where four-fifths of the land area is owned by the federal government — more than any other state.
If Donnelly had his way, regulators would put the kibosh on solar farms immediately adjacent to Big Dune. He’s worried they could alter the movement of sand across the desert floor, affecting several rare beetles that call the dune home.
But if the feds want to allow solar projects along the highway to the south, near the Area 51 Alien Center?
“Might not be the end the world,” Donnelly said.
“You know, one thing I like to do. ”
Without warning, he took off racing down the dune, carried by momentum and love for the desert. He laughed as he reached a natural stopping point, calling for us to join him. His voice sounded free and full of possibility.
Some solar panels on the horizon wouldn’t have changed that.
Shout it from the rooftops
Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich were a match made in Mojave Desert heaven.
Cunningham was a wildlife biologist, Emmerich a park ranger when they met nearly 30 years ago at Death Valley. She studied tortoises for government agencies and later a private contractor. He worked with bighorn sheep and gave interpretive talks. They got married, bought property along the Amargosa River and started their own conservation group, Basin and Range Watch.
And they’ve been fighting solar development ever since.
That’s how we ended up in the back of their SUV, pulling open a rickety cattle gate off Highway 95 and driving past wild burros on a dirt road through Nevada’s Bullfrog Hills, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
They had told us Sarcobatus Flat was stunning, but I was still surprised by how stunning. I got my first look as we crested a ridge. The gently sloping valley spilled down toward Death Valley National Park, whose snowy mountain peaks towered over a landscape dotted with thousands of Joshua trees.
“Everything we’re looking at is proposed for solar development,” Cunningham said.
Most environmentalists agree we need at least some large solar farms. Cunningham and Emmerich are different. They’re at the vanguard of a harder-core desert protection movement that sees all large-scale solar farms on public lands as bad news.
Why had so many companies converged on Sarcobatus Flat?
The main answer is transmission. NV Energy is seeking federal approval to build the 358-mile Greenlink West electric line, which would carry thousands of megawatts of renewable power between Reno and Las Vegas along the Highway 95 corridor.
The dirt road curved around a small hill, and suddenly we found ourselves on the valley floor, surrounded by Joshua trees. Some looked healthy; others had bark that had been chewed by rodents seeking water, a sign of drought stress. Scientists estimate the Joshua tree’s western subspecies could lose 90% of its range as the world gets hotter and droughts get more intense.
But asked whether climate change or solar posed a bigger threat to Sarcobatus Flat, Cunningham didn’t hesitate.
“Oh, solar development hands down,” she said.
Nearly 20 years ago, she said, she helped relocate desert tortoises to make way for a test track in California. One of them tried to return home, walking 20 miles before hitting a fence. It paced back and forth and eventually died of heat exhaustion.
Solar farms, she said, pose a similar threat to tortoises. And at Sarcobatus Flat, they would cover a high-elevation area that could otherwise serve as a climate refuge for Joshua trees, giving them a relatively cool place to reproduce as the planet heats up.
“It makes no sense to me that we’re going to bulldoze them down and throw them into trash piles. It’s just crazy,” she said.
In Cunningham and Emmerich’s view, every sun-baked parking lot in L.A. and Vegas and Phoenix should have a solar canopy, every warehouse and single-family home a solar roof. It’s a common argument among desert defenders: Why sacrifice sensitive ecosystems when there’s an easy alternative for fighting climate change? Especially when rooftop solar can reduce strain on an overtaxed electric grid and — when paired with batteries — help people keep their lights on during blackouts?
The answer isn’t especially satisfying to conservationists.
For all the virtues of rooftop solar, it’s an expensive way to generate clean power — and keeping energy costs low is crucial to ensure that lower-income families can afford electric cars, another key climate solution. A recent report from investment bank Lazard pegged the cost of rooftop solar at 11.7 cents per kilowatt-hour on the low end, compared with 2.4 cents for utility solar.
Even when factoring in pricey long-distance electric lines, utility-scale solar is typically cheaper, several experts told me.
“It’s three to six times more expensive to put solar on your roof than to put it in a large-scale project,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems researcher at Princeton University. “There may be some added value to having solar in the Los Angeles Basin instead of the middle of the Mojave Desert. But is it 300% to 600% more value? Probably not. It’s probably not even close.”
There’s a practical challenge, too.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated U.S. rooftops could generate 1,432 terawatt-hours of electricity per year — just 13% of the power America will need to replace most of its coal, oil and gas, according to research led by Jenkins.
Add in parking lots and other areas within cities, and urban solar systems might conceivably supply one-quarter or even one-third of U.S. power, several experts told The Times — in an unlikely scenario where they’re installed in every suitable spot.
Energy researcher Chris Clack’s consulting firm has found that dramatic growth in rooftop and other small-scale solar installations could reduce the costs of slashing climate pollution by half a trillion dollars. But even Clack said rooftops alone won’t cut it.
“Realistically, 80% is going to end up being utility grid no matter what,” he said.
All those industrial renewable energy projects will have to go somewhere.
Sarcobatus Flat may not be the answer. Federal officials classified all three solar proposals there as “low priority,” citing their proximity to Death Valley and potential harm to tortoise habitat. One developer withdrew its application last year.
Before leaving the area, Cunningham pointed to a wooden marker, one of at least half a dozen stretching out in a line. I walked over to take a closer look and discovered it was a mining claim for lithium — a key ingredient in electric-car batteries.
If solar development didn’t upend this valley, lithium extraction might.
On the beaten track
The four-wheeler jerked violently as Erica Muxlow pressed her foot to the gas, sending us flying down a rough dirt road with no end in sight but the distant mountains. Five-point safety straps were the only things stopping us from flying out of our seats, the vehicle leaping through the air as we reached speeds of 40 mph, then 50 mph, the wind whipping our faces.
It was like riding Disneyland’s Matterhorn Bobsleds — just without the Yeti.
Ahead of us, Muxlow’s neighbor Jimmy Lewis led the way on an electric blue motorcycle, kicking up a stream of sand. He wanted us to see thousands of acres of public lands outside his adopted hometown of Pahrump, in Nevada’s Nye County, that could soon be blocked by solar projects — cutting off access to off-highway vehicle enthusiasts such as himself.
“You could build an apartment complex or a shopping mall here, and it would be the same thing to me,” he said.
To progressive-minded Angelenos or San Franciscans, preserving large chunks of public land for gas-guzzling, environmentally destructive dirt bikes might sound like a terrible reason not to build solar farms that would lessen the climate crisis.
But here’s the reality: Rural Westerners such as Lewis will play a key role in determining how much clean energy gets built.
Not long before our Nevada trip, Nye County placed a six-month pause on new renewable energy projects, citing local concerns about loss of off-road vehicle trails. Similar fears have stymied development across the U.S., with rural residents attacking solar and wind farms as industrial intrusions on their way of life — and local governments throwing up roadblocks.
For Lewis, the conflict is deeply personal.
He moved here from Southern California more than a decade ago, trading life by the beach for a five-acre plot where he runs an off-roading school and test-drives motorcycles for manufacturers. His warehouse was packed with dozens of dirt bikes.
“This is my life. Motorcycles, motorcycles, motorcycles,” he said, laughing.
Lewis has worked to stir up opposition to three local solar farm proposals. So far, his efforts have been in vain.
One project is already under construction. Peering through a fence, we saw row after row of trusses, waiting for their photovoltaic panels. It’s called Yellow Pine, and it’s being built by Florida-based NextEra Energy to supply power to California.
Lewis learned about Yellow Pine when he was riding one of his favorite trails and was surprised to find it cut off. He compared the experience to riding the best roller-coaster at a theme park, only to have it grind to a halt three-quarters of the way through.
“I don’t want my playground taken away from me,” he said.
“Me neither!” a voice called out from behind us.
We turned and were greeted by Shannon Salter, an activist who had previously spent nine months camping near the Yellow Pine site to protest the habitat destruction. She and Lewis had never met, but they quickly realized they had common cause.
“It’s the opposite of green!” Salter said.
“On my roof, not my backyard,” Lewis agreed.
Never mind that conservationists have long decried the ecological damage from desert off-roading. Salter and Lewis both cared about these lands. Neither wanted to see the solar industry lay claim to them. They talked about staying in touch.
It’s easy to imagine similar alliances forming across the West, the clean energy transition bringing together environmentalists and rural residents in a battle to defend their lifestyles, their landscapes and animals that can’t fight for themselves.
It’s also easy to imagine major cities that badly need lots of solar and wind power — Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix — brushing off those complaints as insignificant compared with the climate emergency, or as fueled by right-wing misinformation.
But many of their concerns are legitimate. And their voices are only getting louder.
As night fell over the Mojave, Lewis shared his idea that any city buying electricity from a desert solar farm should be required to install a certain amount of rooftop solar back home first — on government buildings, at least. It only seemed fair.
“Some people see the desert as just a wasteland,” Lewis said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
The view from Black Mountain
So how do we build enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels without destroying too many ecosystems, or stoking too much political opposition from rural towns, or moving too slowly to save the planet?
Few people could do more to ease those tensions than Buffett.
Our conversation kept returning to the legendary investor as we hiked Black Mountain, just outside Vegas, on our last morning in the Silver State. We were joined by Jaina Moan, director of external affairs for the Nature Conservancy’s Nevada chapter. She had promised a view of massive solar fields from the peak — but only after a 3.5-mile trek with 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
“It’ll be a little StairMaster at the end,” she warned us.
The homes and hotels and casinos of the Las Vegas Valley retreated behind us as we climbed, looking ever smaller and more insignificant against the vast open desert. It was an illusion that will prove increasingly difficult to maintain as Sin City and its suburbs continue their march into the Mojave. Nevada politicians from both parties are pushing for legislation that would let federal officials auction off additional public lands for residential and commercial development.
Vegas and other Western cities could limit the need for more suburbs — and sprawling solar farms — by growing smarter, Moan said. Urban areas could embrace density, to help people drive fewer miles and reduce the demand for new power supplies to fuel electric vehicles. They could invest in electric buses and trains — and use less water, which would save a lot of energy.
“As our spaces become more crowded, we’re going to have to come up with more creative ideas,” Moan said.
That’s where Buffett could make things easier.
The billionaire’s Berkshire Hathaway company owns electric utilities that serve millions of people, from California to Nevada to Illinois. Those utilities, Moan said, could buck the industry trend of urging policymakers to reduce financial incentives for rooftop solar and instead encourage the technology — along with other small-scale clean energy solutions, such as local microgrids.
That would limit the need for big solar farms — at least somewhat.
Berkshire and other energy giants could also build solar on lands already altered by humans, such as abandoned mines, toxic Superfund sites, reservoirs, landfills, agricultural areas, highway corridors and canals that carry water to farms and cities.
The costs are typically higher than building on undisturbed public lands. And in many cases there are technical challenges yet to be resolved. But those kinds of “creative solutions” could at least lessen the loss of biodiversity, Moan said.
“There’s money to be made there, and there’s good to be done,” she said.
It’s hard to know what Buffett thinks. A Berkshire spokesperson declined my request to interview him.
Tony Sanchez, NV Energy’s executive vice president for business development and external relations, was more forthcoming.
“The problem for us with rooftop solar,” he said, is that it’s “not controlled at all by us.” As a result, NV Energy can’t decide when and how rooftop solar power is used — and can’t rely on that power to help balance supply and demand on the grid.
Over time, Sanchez predicted, a lot more rooftop solar will get built. But he couldn’t say how much.
Rooftop solar faces a similarly uncertain future in California, where state officials voted last year to slash incentive payments, calling them an unfair subsidy. Industry leaders have warned of a dramatic decline in installations.
As we neared the top of Black Mountain, the solar farms on the other side came into view. They stretched across the Eldorado Valley far below — black rectangles that could help save life on Earth while also destroying bits and pieces of it.
Moan believes the key to balancing clean energy and conservation is “go slow to go fast.” Government agencies, she said, should work with conservation activists, small-town residents and Native American tribes to study and map out the best places for clean energy, then reward companies that agree to build in those areas with faster approvals. Solar and wind development would slow down in the short term but speed up in the long run, with quicker environmental reviews and less risk of lawsuits.
It’s a tantalizing concept — but I confessed to Moan that I worried it would backfire.
What if the sparring factions couldn’t agree on the best spots to build solar and wind farms, and instead wasted years arguing? Or what if they did manage to hammer out some compromises, only for a handful of unhappy people or groups to take them to court, gumming up the works? Couldn’t “go slow to go fast” end up becoming “go slow to go slow”?
In other words, should we really bet our collective future on human beings working together, rather than fighting?
Moan was sympathetic to my fears. She also didn’t see another way forward.
“We really need to think holistically about saving everything,” she said.
The sad truth is, not everything can be saved. Not if we want to keep the world livable for people and animals alike.
Some beloved landscapes will be left unrecognizable. Some families will be stuck paying high energy bills to monopoly utilities, even as some utility investors make less money. Some tortoises will probably die, pacing along fences in the heat.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.