Southern Nevada Wildlands Face Industrial Transformation

By 2020, Nevadans may not recognize the once open wildlands they enjoy outside of Las Vegas, as renewable energy corporations backed by Wall Street have proposed to industrialize roughly 410 square miles of desert habitat in nearly every scenic vista within an hour's drive of the metropolis.
  • A slew of solar companies have applied, or have been approved to construct 19 solar facilities in desert valleys, each consuming several square miles of land.  
  • Wind companies, on the other hand, are exploring options to build 6 different facilities, and the average project would fragment and industrialize over 27 square miles of desert mountains and foothills of southern Nevada.  
  • Transmission lines constitute the third greatest threat to wild lands, as utility companies plan to add dozens of miles of new transmission lines across the region to connect new solar and wind projects to the grid. 
Doubling Vegas' Sprawl
If all of the projects are constructed,  energy companies will have destroyed a cumulative amount of desert wildlands roughly equal to the size of the Las Vegas metropolitan area.  Whereas the city's sprawl took decades, the industrial energy sprawl could be much faster.  The projects already approved or under construction total nearly 20 square miles -- larger than several housing subdivisions. 


[Click on image to expand] A Google Earth image of the Las Vegas area provides a scale to understand how much public lands will be destroyed for renewable energy development in the southern Nevada area.  Each block represents the square mileage proposed or approved for public land destruction, broken out by solar, wind, transmission, and projects already approved.
Playing Roulette with Wildlands
Local conservationists have been largely silent--if not supportive--as key decisions are made that will affect southern Nevada's landscapes.  Since the Department of Interior has approved nearly every solar and wind energy project proposed and evaluated in America's southwestern desert, the primary wild card that will impact just how many of the projects are constructed is the ability of the companies to win government incentives and private investments.  A single facility can cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.  Depending on an uneven investment climate, however, is not a conservation strategy, and without a more holistic understanding of the ecosystem, Nevadans are playing roulette with their public lands.   Nevada's neighbors are in the process of taking a more in-depth look at how to protect natural resources from the potential wave of industrialization -- California with its Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP) and Arizona with its Restoration Design project.  Climate change, urban sprawl and other burdens on desert ecosystems are all the more reason to ensure renewable energy development does not incur irreversible harm to biodiversity. 

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has stalled some applications pending its revision of the Las Vegas Resource Management Plan (last updated in 1998), and is reportedly taking under consideration a proposal for a new Area of Critical Environmental Concern in the Ivanpah Valley.  It's not clear to what extent the revised plan will evaluate ecosystem-level impacts of energy development or address habitat connectivity issues between Nevada and neighboring states.

Local Potential Neglected
Nevada also has weaker incentives for rooftop solar and energy efficiency, even though a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) study found that Nevada has the potential to generate 7,000 megawatts (MW) of rooftop solar energy, about the same as the state's peak demand. The study further found that Nevada has the potential for 11,000 MW of "urban utility-scale" solar projects -- ground mounted solar panels in open spaces within the boundaries of our cities, instead of on remote desert lands. The state is missing an enormous opportunity to invest in its communities while saving its natural resources.

Visually Impaired
If you need an escape from Las Vegas, one can generally drive out of the valley in any direction and find themselves in a wide open desert expanse.  If the proposed solar, wind and transmission projects move forward, open expanse will become the exception. An analysis of proposed projects and the geography in southern Nevada suggests that nearly every scenic vista will be marred by these large scale industrial projects, not to mention the impacts these projects have on the ecosystem.

The El Dorado Valley south of Las Vegas now hosts a natural gas plant, and ever-expanding solar facilities. This image was taken in early 2011, before Sempra Energy began expanding its solar facility seen in the distance.
The El Dorado Valley offers a case study.  As of the year 2000, most of the desert in the area just south of Las Vegas remained untouched, other than some transmission lines and an electrical substation. Travelers on Highway 95 could take in the sweeping desert vista as an alternative to the subdivisions and tangle of roads and hotels in the city less than an hour drive away, seemingly held back by the rugged McCullough range.  But by 2003 a natural gas generation plant was built, followed by Nevada Solar One in 2008, a concentrating solar facility that destroyed about 400 acres. By 2012 these projects were joined by Sempra Energy's El Dorado and Copper Mountain Solar on several hundred more acres.  These facilities still do not amount to the destruction seen in California's Ivanpah Valley for BrightSource Energy's project, but they offer an example of how a couple of industrial scale projects can transform a desert landscape for worse.


Going South
Driving past the El Dorado Valley into the quiet town of Searchlight, and you'll find more industrial energy projects planned for the sweeping Piute Valley, with views of the Piute Range and Spirit Mountain expected to be ruined by at least two large wind energy developments -- the Searchlight and Crescent Peak wind projects.  Each would install dozens of wind turbines standing over 400 feet high -- each taller than the Statue of Liberty. There will be more structures taller than 400 feet high in the Piute Valley than in the city of Las Vegas, once the Searchlight wind project is built.

This desert habitat to the east of Highway 95, and south of Searchlight would be disrupted by dozens of giant wind turbines, and new dirt roads large enough to accommodate construction equipment and wide-load vehicles. 

...Southeast
If you drive along the I-15 toward California, you'll already see a couple of the BLM's approved projects - First Solar's Silver State North and BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah project.  First Solar now has plans to build two more projects -- Silver State South (Nevada side of the border) and Stateline (California).  This will continue the unfortunate industrialization of the Ivanpah Valley, a majestic open desert expanse at the foot of Clark Mountain, and potentially cut off a desert tortoise connectivity corridor.

Several square miles of this view will be bulldozed for First Solar's Silver State South project in the Ivanpah Valley. The project is on the Bureau of Land Management's "priority" list, despite concerns from Fish and Wildlife officials and citizen conservationists.  Research on habitat connectivity is incomplete, but the Department of Interior is already signaling approval for the project after adding it to the "fast track" list.
...Northwest
If you drive past Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area toward Pahrump, you'll pass the rugged area where a wind company wants to build the Table Mountain project. You won't have to drive much further before you see another desert valley that is slated for more destruction. BrightSource Energy, Abengoa, and Pacific Solar Investments all want to bulldoze vast tracts of desert here for their projects. And the Valley Electric Association is planning to install a new transmission line, running over 50 miles to the El Dorado Valley, to connect all of these new projects to the California grid.

What is currently a mostly untouched open expanse in the Sandy Valley area of  Nevada, south of Pahrump. Several solar applications would completely transform this landscape.
...Northeast
In a few years time, the drive from Vegas on the I-15 heading toward Utah could look quite different. Open desert will be replaced by the Moapa Solar project (recently approved by the Department of Interior), and possibly the Moapa Solar Energy Center project.  These projects will operate alongside the Reid Gardner Coal plant, which has been in operation for decades and escaped strict EPA regulation earlier this year. Companies also want to build the Pioneer Wind energy project, and a massive solar "power tower" project adjacent to the Muddy Mountains ACEC. If you drive even further toward Utah you'll come across the proposed Flat Top Mesa wind project.

BrightSource Energy proposed building it's power tower facilities (an example pictured above) northeast of Las Vegas in an open expanse of desert south of Moapa and the Reid Gardner coal plant .  The photo above shows the construction of the company's Ivanpah Valley project.
Department of Interior made this map of all proposed renewable energy and transmission projects available on its website, as well as a list with more details on each project.
Southern Nevada Renewable Energy Projects as of July 2012

Comments

  1. Amazing...as you often note, solar is something to put on every existing rooftop in the SW, not these huge solar farms. What a negative change for such a forgotten desert as the Mojave....causes me to be glad that such things seem further down the road in the Chihuahuan Desert.

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