Early plans to build a coal-fired power plant near Gerlach—a couple hours’ drive from Reno—divide a rural Nevada community
Not every resident of Gerlach, population 499, opposes a plan to build what could be Nevada’s largest coal-fired power plant at the foot of the nearby Granite Mountain Range. Meet Jim Phillips.
It’s a warm spring day, and the door of Joe’s Gerlach Club is propped open. Phillips sits at the bar, eating peanuts, drinking Miller and expounding the benefits of “growth.” Phillips, a self-employed carpenter, was “born and raised” in the town, he says, and if a large energy firm wants to build a coal-fired power plant here, he’ll be first in line to help with construction.
“It’s going to be a great thing for the town,” Phillips says. “These people are crying about water. We got so much water in our tower, it’s overflowing and going off into the desert. Now there’s no water? I’m not buying it.”
At this, a woman sitting nearby turns a bit red, lowers her head and mumbles to the bartender, who sips at his own beer.
“Don’t even get me started,” the bartender says, also under his breath.
The woman says the power plant is yet another conspiracy of Californians—some wild idea concocted by the same people who flood the town for a week every year during Burning Man, the art festival that attracts about 30,000 people to the nearby Black Rock Desert.
“They’ve wrecked our town,” she says of Burning Man, an event that migrated from California.
And the planned 1,450-megawatt coal-burning power plant? Same thing, she says. Californians are pushing this plan to pollute the far reaches of Washoe County just to generate electricity for their Hollywood homes.
Many other residents feel the same. Yes, some are “crying,” as Phillips says, about water. That’s because the minimum amount of water required to cool a plant this size—lowball estimate, 15,000 to 16,000 acre-feet per year—would be enough water to maintain nearly 70 communities the size of Gerlach each year. That’s enough water to fill Donner Lake (around 9,000 acre-feet during peak runoff season) nearly twice.
“No one here wants it,” says Chris Petrell of the power plant. Petrell’s working outside Burning Man’s Gerlach office on Main Street, across from the bar. Petrell, it turns out, can only speak as a resident of the small town, not as a representative of the Burning Man organization. Burning Man won’t take a stand on this controversy.
“This is Ground Zero,” says John Bogard, a self-employed potter who lives and works northwest of Gerlach, a couple hours’ drive from Reno. He holds up a map of the surrounding Nevada desert. He points to a circle within a circle, the proposed site for the plant—about two miles from his home, studio and the galleries of Planet X Pottery.
"[The majority] of the nation’s pollution comes from coal-burning plants. And we’ll get all of that. I’ll get that. … We don’t get any benefit—just pollution.”
The Bogards have lived on their spread for 30 years. They’ve raised a couple of kids here, supporting themselves by selling the kind of artful ceramics that compel people to drive hours off the beaten path.
The population is sparse out here—just a few ranches spread out over hundreds and hundreds of acres. The land is quiet, except for the birds. The Bogards’ home is under the Pacific Flyway, the path migrating fowl use to head from the northern reaches of Canada to the Mexican coast. That’s why the Bogards power their home exclusively using several arrays of solar panels and no wind generators. Windmills are a danger to the birds, John says. Cooling ponds of toxic water from a coal plant would be a deathtrap.
John began visiting the area in the 1960s. In the spring of 1974, he moved to the area from Santa Cruz. The rent was cheap.
Now the Bogards own around 250 acres. They know about the effects of wildness on the human soul.
Plans for the plant, dubbed Granite Fox Power, are in the early stages, say representatives of San Diego-based Sempra Energy, the company pitching the proposal. Such issues as the plant’s exact size and what kinds of fuels, besides coal, might be used are still being studied. Federal, state and local agencies haven’t yet received permit requests for the facility.
But for John Bogard and his wife, Rachel, it’s not too soon to warn the public about the detrimental effects of coal plants.
As power plant pollution goes, coal-fired plants contribute 96 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions, 93 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions, 88 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, and 99 percent of mercury emissions, according to a study by the Clean Air Task Force that’s cited in a Sierra Club fact sheet.
That’s why local and national environmental groups are stoking up the anti-plant engine in Gerlach, as they are across the nation. The Granite Fox plan, along with another planned coal-burning plant being considered near Ely, attracted attention from representatives of the Utah Division of Air Quality, who fear for the air over Salt Lake City, as pollution can travel hundreds of miles given the right conditions.
On Bogard’s map, it’s easy to see just how close—a few miles—the proposed plant site is to the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area. It took an act of Congress to create this protected zone, he notes. That work should not be negated by a few permits and a vote of the Washoe County Commission.
Also within a short hike is another 18,600-acre area nominated to conservation status—Buffalo Hills, Granite Range and Wall Canyon, which is home to more endangered species and habitats, hot springs and archaeological sites.
“This area you might consider as a good place for even city folk to come out and take a breath,” Bogard says. “But that will no longer be the case.”
Power lines make noise. At least these 3,100-megawatt cables do, stretched across Highway 447 between Planet X Pottery and the town of Gerlach. The lines snap, crackle and pop like Rice Krispies.
There are no birds singing here, no insects humming. Just the plipping, zapping, clucking of this nonstop 850-mile power trip from the Celilo Converter Station on the Columbia River in Washington to southern California.
This is not Nevada’s power. These electrons—coursing south on the Pacific Direct Current Intertie—are just sounding off in the crisp desert air on their way to Los Angeles. From there, this energy can be used or sold—sometimes sold back to Nevadans. The PDCI is considered one of the most critical power lines in the U.S. power grid. The power flowing along these lines is potentially enough to keep the lights on and refrigerators running in several communities the size of the Truckee Meadows.
It’s all about supply and demand.
California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, is hungry for power. California power brokers fear that, as in 2000, demand could exceed supply, but attempts to build large new plants there are met with fierce resistance.
A remote stretch of northwestern Nevada—a hop and skip from the PDCI—seems the perfect place to sow an energy farm.
Sempra looks for three things when choosing a site—land, water and a nearby railroad, says Tiffany Frisch, local spokesperson for Sempra.
“We have all three of those in the Gerlach area,” she says.
Though Sempra hasn’t purchased land or water rights yet, she says the company has options on both.
“We know there’s concern on behalf of area residents that their wells will go dry, that wildlife would suffer,” Frisch says. “But we’re not going to go in and drain everyone’s wells. We need water to cool the plant. We’re not going to drain the basin in a couple of years when there’s a lifespan of 30 years on the project.”
If the company can’t obtain the needed water resources, it won’t be able to build the plant, Frisch says. Before the plant can be considered, a complete environmental-impact statement will have to be done.
Frisch says Sempra is talking with Sierra Pacific Resources and that some power from the Gerlach plant might be available to Nevadans.
The proposed coal-fired plant is billed as a “clean” coal facility—and surely it will be cleaner than antiquated Midwestern coal plants with emissions that are said to be responsible for hundreds of deaths, tens of thousands of asthma attacks and hundreds of thousands of upper-respiratory-disease cases every year.
But though it’s “clean,” a plan of the size being touted for the Gerlach site could emit more than 6,000 tons of nitrogen oxide ("nox") and about 4,400 tons of sulfur dioxide annually, says Tim Hay, consumer advocate with the Nevada Attorney General’s Office.
“Nox is a precursor to ozone pollution,” Hay warns. “And we have issues on that in both ends of the state.”
Before the 2003 Nevada Legislature, there’d been plenty of talk of building wind farms in the Silver State. Given the number of hot springs near Gerlach, geothermal seemed a promising new source of energy.
In 1997, legislators voted to include sustainable energy in the state’s power portfolio.
But not enough change came of this. Perhaps industry leaders were, Hay suggests, merely paying lip service to what we wanted to hear.
“Despite having an early start, we don’t have a major new renewable facility under construction in the state,” he says. “Oregon, Washington and Colorado have large wind farms. Despite our track record in jump-starting that industry … we don’t have much to show for it.”
In the late 1990s, the Piñon Pine Power Project, located at the Tracy Generating Plant, 17 miles east of Reno, came online. It was supposed to be the poster child for a new clean technology, coal gasification. The process, which converts coal to gas, never worked for “more than five minutes” at a time, Hay says, lamenting the loss of about $90 million in taxpayer funds that funded the defunct experiment.
“They’re tearing it down for scrap metal as we speak,” Hay says. The Tracy plant burns natural gas, which is exponentially cleaner than coal but still a nonrenewable fossil fuel.
Now gas prices are volatile.
“People two or three years ago thought they’d never see another coal plant in the United States,” Hay says. “Now, with gas prices escalating and gas supply constrained, coal seems economical.”
The Gerlach proposal is just one of three or four new coal-fired plant plans being considered in Nevada. There other sites are in Ely, Moapa and, possibly, Elko.
Though demand for power is growing much faster in Nevada than it is in California, most of the power generated at a new plant near Gerlach wouldn’t go to Nevada.
“We’d be using our water and our air quality and tipping tons and tons of nox and other pollutants across northern Nevada and Utah with little benefit at all to Nevada, other than slight increase in the tax base,” Hay says. He’s already hearing from many who are opposed to the project. As state consumer advocate, he won’t be involved in the process until Sempra’s plan comes before the Public Utilities Commission.
One of the worst aspects of investing in coal, Hay says, is that it leaves little room in the market for wind, solar or geothermal.
“If you put up one of these big plants it undercuts the efforts to build more renewable resources,” Hay says.
The special of the day At Bruno’s Country Club & Motel on Main Street in Gerlach is pot roast ($6.85). A family eats steak at one large table. A man walks in and sits at the counter with a sigh.
“Long day?” a man asks from the three stools down.
“Went to Reno,” the newcomer replies. “Boy, those people sure don’t know how to drive.”
“It’s those Californians.”
Above the bar, a sign reads: “Hungry? Eat an environmentalist.” Behind the bar is Bruno Selmi, owner of the country club, motel and also Bruno’s Shell gas station. The 80-year-old Italian immigrant has worked for 55 years to build his businesses. Selmi is the American Dream, in the flesh.
It’s Selmi’s contention that only three or four people in town oppose the coming of a power plant. The project would bring jobs—800 workers to build the plant and about 100 workers to keep it running. It would give the Gerlach economy a needed boost.
“The workers, they spend the money,” he says. “If you make money, you’re going to spend it.”
This winter’s been one of the worst he’s seen for business.
“If you don’t build the power plant,” he says, “the town is gonna die. …This is good for the school, good for the clinic—it’s good for everybody.”
Selmi’s philosophy of life is simple. Work hard and take nothing that you can’t pay back. He paid his family back for the money they spent sending him to America at the age of 17.
Is Selmi worried about Gerlach’s water supply?
“Why have to worry about water?” he says. “People in the power plant worry about water. You think they spend a billion here if they got no water? If you got no water, you got no power.”
Selmi says he completely trusts the judgment of federal agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“That’s why the EPA is there,” he says. “If there’s pollution, the EPA is going to shut it down. We got laws in America. If it pollutes, they gonna shut it down.”
Selmi pauses to mix vodka and orange juice for a man he calls an old friend. He lets his friend use his telephone. Then he continues.
“Life is what you make it,” he says. “Don’t be bitter. Don’t be mad. If you don’t like it, this power plant, you can move out. … In this country, you have a lot of opportunity. … Everything you see, I build myself.”
The smell of fried chicken lingers in the air at the Gerlach Senior Center. Retired educators Ruby and Vernon Ausbrooks, who moved to Gerlach in 1998, take a break from a game of pool to chat about their opposition to the coal plant.
Vernon is on the Gerlach Citizen Advisory Board. He learned about the plans for a coal plant when Sempra requested permits to build an air-monitoring tower at the site. The Gerlach CAB recommended that Washoe County commissioners deny the permit as an early move in opposition to the power plant.
In March, county commissioners approved plans for the tower, which will gather preliminary wind and air-quality data.
The county’s decision faced an immediate appeal. Critics argue that the 164-foot wind-monitoring station won’t provide accurate data to determine effects of a smoke plume that could rise 650 feet into the air.
Diminished air quality is just one of the Ausbrooks’ many fears.
“My concern is that we’ve got beautiful countryside here,” Vernon says. “We’ve got wilderness areas set aside that the Bureau of Land Management is supposed to protect for us and preserve in the state they’re in.”
Is there anything Sempra could do to entice these seniors into supporting the coal plant?
Vernon Ausbrooks says no.
“As I was saying to Ruby the other day, if you have a bucket of manure and you stir fresh water into it, theoretically it’s cleaner. But it’s still a bucket of manure.”
Now that he’s finished making regular treks into Reno for chemotherapy treatments, Stephen Chandler can get back to his first love, photographing the Black Rock Desert, capturing the place where the land meets the sky.
Chandler moved to Gerlach around seven years ago because other parts of the Southwest were over-photographed. He was attracted to the “otherworldliness” of this area.
“You don’t have to go to Mars or the moon. You have it right here in this remote place,” he says.
Chandler opposes the power plant for a couple reasons. First, he’s been researching many possible causes of cancer and can’t imagine that emissions from a coal plant would be much less packed with carcinogens than, say, diesel fumes.
But more than that, he loves the land.
“It’s an atrocity to put a big coal plant out in sacred space,” he says.
This year, Chandler showed his work at the Nevada Museum of Art. It was his first museum show, the realization of a dream.
Living in a small house on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Elm Street in Gerlach is the realization of another dream. He first saw the small white house and photographed it in 1988.
“And now I’m living in it!” he says.
Chandler’s living room doubles as a gallery for his photographs—long panoramic Black Rock Desert landscapes with glossy surfaces, each illumined by its own set of track lights. There are a few books on a stand: Tao Te Ching, Photoshop, Cancer: 50 Essential Things to Do and a John Grisham novel. About a quarter of the small room is taken up by a large-format printer, an Epson Stylus Pro 9600 that can make prints seven feet long.
“As you can see from my work,” Chandler says, motioning to his photo of a brilliant sunset on the playa, “this is all dependent on clear air. If that goes, my work here is done.
“Yeah, it may be good for people who want jobs. But it’s shoving a little guy like me out. It ruins the possibility of doing what I do. It ruins the feel of the place. … It seems to me that Nevada’s just shitting in its own backyard.”
Those opposed to the power plant in Gerlach know they won’t be able to take on Sempra, a Fortune 500 company with the largest customer base of any utility in the United States, and its $2 billion project by themselves. They need to rouse concerned citizens of Washoe County and appreciators of the desert, whether hunters or hikers. These people can lobby the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection, the agency in charge of issuing air quality control permits, and the Bureau of Land Management, who’d be approving any rights-of-way permits needed for the project to access public lands. They can closely monitor the creation of an environmental-impact statement. They can work to educate Washoe County commissioners, especially those up for reelection.
“It’s not going to be us,” Bogard says. “We can’t fight a $2 billion project, per se, but if people in the county are up in arms against the thing, that’ll delay [Sempra]. If they’re delayed, then maybe they’ll go away. Then again, maybe not.”
Yet people demand power. If the pristine desert isn’t the right place to build—and if power companies refuse to invest in renewables—where should new power plants go?
Bogard has a few off-the-cuff suggestions.
“Stick it down in Fallon or in the goddamn test site,” Bogard says. “They can fly jets around it and pretend it’s Iraq. Put it on Interstate 5, where sections are already poisoned along the aqueduct. It’ll give you something to look at when you’re driving I-5.
“Or tell [Californians] to turn off their swimming pool lights."