Racing for the sun
Nevada Wilderness Project encourages clean energy that also works for wildlife
Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and U.S. Senator Harry Reid announced in late June that “fast track” initiatives are underway to speed development of large-scale solar energy projects throughout the West. Now the U.S. Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management are evaluating 24 tracts of BLM land in six Western states identified for an in-depth study for solar development. Seven sites are in Nevada: portions of the Amargosa Valley, Dry Lake, Delamar Valley, Dry Lake Valley North, East Mormon Mountain, Gold Point and Miller. Public comment on these sites ends July 30 (see column note).
While conservationists tend to welcome the development of clean energy, some want to ensure that these projects don’t “save the planet” at the expense of wildlife and their habitat.
“We have enormous potential to create a real industry that’s sustainable—if it’s done correctly,” says John Wallin, executive director of the Nevada Wilderness Project.
The NWP is a local conservation group that’s developed a “Smart from the Start” campaign. It’s been meeting with clean energy developers who have an eye on Nevada and discussing with them what the NWP has identified as project areas that would have the least impact on the environment. For example, the Toquop Wash north of Mesquite has already undergone environmental review for a coal power plant site. Other areas have been disturbed by previous industrial uses or have low species diversity.
The campaign marks a shift for the NWP, which, for the past 10 years, has focused primarily on protecting wilderness areas, not the sorts of lands being proposed for renewable energy development.
“We realized so much has changed in the decade we’ve been doing this work,” says Wallin. “We’ve got certain skill sets in our staff and organization that can approach new challenges, and most of those new challenges revolve around renewable energy.”
NWP wants to help ensure that, as the patchwork of clean energy projects are pieced together and placed over the land, it’s in a way that accounts for wildlife corridors and the species they support. The group is also encouraging industry and political leaders to enact mitigation strategies—preserving one area as another is developed—as they go forth. For instance, funds from a solar project could potentially kickstart an existing state plan to restore sage grouse habitat—a plan that’s languished under budget constraints.
“Why develop and conserve separately when we know they can go hand in hand?” says Wallin.
While these sorts of issues will be studied in the environmental impact statement and other reviews throughout the permitting process, NWP believes it’s important an informed and active public voice play a strong role.
“I think government agencies work better when there’s public input, and we’re the public,” says Charlotte Overby, NWP communications director.
Is the fast track a little too fast? Wallin doesn’t think so, given the challenges presented by climate change and a struggling economy.
“The environmental community says, ‘We need more time. We need more time.’ And that’s precisely what we don’t have,” says