LAS VEGAS — In the Mojave Desert, Shannon Salter walks past creosote bushes and Mojave yucca, the plant's spiky, dagger-like leaves sticking up toward the sky. Wearing a heavy down jacket and a floppy hat, she comes up to a fence line and stares at the construction of a project she fought hard to stop. Salter, a poet and part-time teacher, has been camping since October near the Yellow Pine Solar Project, about a 20-minute drive from Pahrump. She was a staunch opponent to the project, wanting to protect the more than 90,000 old-growth yucca and desert ecosystem. Once it got approved, she decided to stick around to watch the bulldozers clear the 3,000 acres of land to make way for a large-scale solar field that will provide power for 100,000 homes in California. "I'm there making a presence in the valley," she told the Las Vegas Sun. "I'm keeping watch. I wanted somebody to bear witness to the destruction. … I don't think people realize the enormity of it. The Yellow Pine Solar Project is the first of six solar projects that could be covering the Pahrump Valley. For activists like Salter, renewable energy projects that aim to curb the planet's warming also come with a heavy price of killing species.
Shannon Salter talks about the Yellow Pine solar energy project under construction east of Pahrump on Feb. 22, 2022. (Photo: Steve Marcus/Las Vegas Sun via AP)
THE URGENCY Human-induced climate change is causing "dangerous and widespread disruption in nature and affecting the lives of billions of people around the world," a Feb. 28 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said. The report emphasized the urgency of "immediate and more ambitious action to address climate risks," Hoesung Lee, chair of the panel, said in a statement. Scientists say temperatures will continue to rise, more droughts and heat waves will occur, natural disasters will be more intense and sea level will rise. In an effort to curb climate change, countries are trying to drastically mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions, which have proven to contribute to the warming of the earth. The Biden administration also has a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by no later than 2050. In 2019, Nevada adopted Senate Bill 358, requiring 50% of the state's energy to come from renewable sources by the year 2030. "If we had taken action on climate change, say 10-15 years ago globally," said Kristen Averyt, the senior climate adviser for the office of Gov. Steve Sisolak, "we probably would have had the luxury of incremental change in terms of what needs to happen to mitigate our greenhouse gas emissions. But we're in a situation where we really need to transform how we approach things." In late December 2021 the Bureau of Land Management published a notice soliciting interest for utility-scale solar energy development on about 46,000 acres of land in Nevada, the agency's largest solicitation for development since 2012. Conservationists are calling it the "solar land rush," and they expect to see many solar proposals come forward. Other renewable energy-related projects across Nevada, from geothermal to wind to lithium mines that would provide batteries for electric vehicles, are also in the works. While energy companies are striving to get their projects approved and help the state and U.S. meet its energy goals, activists, environmentalists and residents are fighting to stop them, opposing their location. "IT'S FRIGHTENING" Near Beatty, a town of around 900 residents about two hours' drive from Las Vegas, residents fear a slew of proposed solar projects will alter views and drive away tourists. There are six projects around Beatty that would cover thousands of acres, said Erika Gerling, a chair of the Beatty Advisory Board. Beatty, known as the "gateway to Death Valley," has been working for 10 years to promote itself as a recreation destination, Gerling said. "Tourism is a huge thing for us," Gerling said. "It's our bread and butter." About 3 miles from the center of Beatty is the ghost town of Rhyolite, an old mining town from the Gold Rush era that drew about a million visitors last year, Gerling said. Part of the Goldwell Open Air Museum in Rhyolite is a sculpture from 1984 called the "Last Supper," in which 13 ghostly figures re-create the famous DaVinci painting. If the Beatty Solar Energy Center, a solar project consisting of an 800 megawatt generating facility, is approved. Tourists could see row upon row of solar arrays behind the famous sculpture. "It's frightening," Gerling said. The projects are in very early stages, having been submitted to the state Public Utilities Commission. "We want to preserve the history and the nature of our area. That's what we're for." "We are not against renewable energy," she said. "We are not against solar energy. We are just not in favor of the location of these projects." Kevin Emmerich and Laura Cunningham, biologists and founders of Basin and Range Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving the deserts of Nevada and California, have been fighting renewable energy projects in the desert, which they say holds a lot of biological value. The yucca serve as home to a couple species of insects, and tortoises use the plant's root system for burrows, Emmerich said. The desert also sequesters carbon, and when heavy machinery disturbs and lifts the desert soil, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, Cunningham said. And with many projects proposed in the Mojave Desert with gaps in between, conservationists worry the ecosystem will be fragmented. "There's got to be better alternatives than destroying these ecosystems," Cunningham said. Desert conservationists would rather see solar farms on already disturbed land, such as old agricultural lots or abandoned mine sites. They also think solar should be put on rooftops or over parking lots, however experts have said that would not be enough and that both large-scale rural projects as well as small-scale urban projects are necessary to curb climate change. THE COST OF LITHIUM Transportation accounts for roughly 36% of Nevada's greenhouse gas emissions, so investing in electric vehicles — which have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline-powered cars — will help offset carbon emissions and help the U.S. meet its energy goals. Lithium is a critical component in the production of batteries that power electric vehicles. In Nevada, where two lithium mine projects are trying to get approval, residents worry about the impacts. The Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron Project in Esmeralda County would extract 24,000 tons of lithium carbonate and 192,000 tons of boric acid per year. It would also employ between 400 and 500 people during the construction period and 250 to 300 people to operate the project, according to Ioneer, the Australian company proposing the project. A rare wildflower called Tiehm's Buckwheat is at risk, however, as opponents say the mine could destroy 90% of the plants. The wildflower only lives in that area, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposed protecting 910 acres of critical habitat for it. If protected status is approved for the wildflower, the mine project could be squashed. An area could still be excluded from critical habitat designation if "the benefits of such exclusion outweigh the benefits of specifying such area as part of the critical habitat," according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, but not if the department determines that failing to designate the area will result in extinction of the species. The company proposed moving the Tiehm's buckwheat to new areas; however scientists contracted by the company determined there were no suitable alternative locations due to the unique soil that the plant needs. Ioneer has maintained that there is evidence of successful translocation of buckwheat species in Nevada and that it is working to protect the species. Ioneer has spent over $1.2 million on research and developing protection measures over the past three years to figure out how to protect and conserve the wildflower, according to its website, and has emphasized its commitment to protecting the species. The Center for Biological Diversity filed an endangered species act petition in 2019 to protect the Tiehm's buckwheat, said Patrick Donnelly, center Great Basin director. The government has one year to issue a final rule, and the group expects an endangered species listing by Oct. 1. The group also proposed a critical habitat petition that would preserve the wildflower's habitat and could possibly kill the mine project, and the group is confident that the species will be listed with the critical habitat status. "If we could get 10 pounds of lithium but it would require bulldozing someone's house," Donnelly said, "we would say 'No, of course we're not going to destroy someone's house.' … As of now, we have a mine that is going to drive a species to extinction. There is no upside, especially when there's a million ways we can do it." Another example is the proposed Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Humboldt County at the Nevada-Oregon border. It would be the largest lithium mine in the country, covering 9 square miles of public land. With a lifespan of 46 years and reserves of 3.47 million tons of lithium carbonate extract, it would consist of open-pit mining and use ore crushing, acid leaching and processing methods to produce lithium carbonate, which would be turned into battery-grade lithium products, including for electric vehicles. The Bureau of Land Management in December 2020 released its final environmental impact statement. Last week it issued air, water and mining permits for the site, bringing it one step closer to breaking ground. But opposition to the mine has gained national attention. Native American tribes say the area holds cultural and historical significance. The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes, presenting evidence of a nearby massacre that occurred in 1865, joined a legal challenge to the mine. A lawsuit brought by several environmental groups concerned about the mine's effect on water and wildlife is also pending. "There is always a right place and a wrong place to do it," Donnelly said. "You're never going to be able to put an open pit mine in Nevada without impacting the environment severely." 'NOWHERE ELSE ON EARTH' The Center for Biological Diversity has also been working to protect species in Nevada threatened by geothermal projects, which uses underground heat produced by the Earth to generate electricity. Geothermal energy projects involve pumping water and extracting the heat and are usually next to hot springs. A geothermal project in Churchill County is threatening the Dixie-Valley toad, a black-freckled and big-eyed amphibian that lives at the Dixie Valley Playa within the Great Basin, to extinction, Donnelly said. Ormat Technologies' Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project broke ground last month while litigation filed by the Center for Biological Diversity is still pending, Donnelly said. "Maybe we make a choice to let some springs go dry for renewable energy, but when there's a toad nowhere else on Earth, for us that's a reason to engage," Donnelly said. Donnelly is tracking five other species, four of which are in Nevada, threatened by geothermal energy. Those include the Dixie Valley pyrg (a kind of springsnail), the Fish Lake Valley tui chub, the steamboat buckwheat and the bleached sandhill skipper, a type of butterfly that lives near the Baltazor Hot Spring in Humboldt County. Donnelly's group is currently preparing an Endangered Species Act petition for those species. CONSERVATION AND CLEAN ENERGY COEXISTING? While the Biden administration has a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, it has a separate goal of conserving 30% of U.S. land by 2030. In southern Clark County near Searchlight, the Kulning Wind Energy Project proposed by Crescent Peak Renewables would help the administration achieve that emission goal by generating 308 megawatts of wind energy with 68 wind turbine generations, a substation and a 29-mile transmission line to Sloan Canyon Switching Station. But the project's plans could be moot if the efforts of conservationists, tribes and recreation groups succeed in turning the area into a national monument known as Avi Kwa Ame, or "Spirit Mountain" in Mojave, which would help Biden's conservation goal. The company thinks the land could accommodate both projects, as the footprint of the wind project is less than 2% of the proposed 450,000-acre national monument, said Lucas Ingvoldstad, senior director of government and external affairs for IOWN Renewable Energy Inc. If the monument is approved, however, new mining claims, energy development, utility lines and road construction would be prohibited. "We have and will continue to support the permanent protection of Spirit Mountain," Ingvoldstad said. "We think these can both coexist. You can have Avi Kwa Ame and the wind project." An environmental impact statement has not yet been done, as that step is further along in the process, but it would identify what is potentially going to be disturbed and if there are other suitable locations. Nearby tribes, which say the area is sacred and at the center of some tribes' creation stories, are staunch in their desire to see the area stay untouched. "It lives within our heart," said Timothy Williams, chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. "It's in our souls. It is the one thing that has remained consistent and persistent in these unprecedented times. It's the one place where we can go to seek refuge in these times." The Governor's Office of Energy and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recognize those tradeoffs involved, and say it is important to balance the "conservation of Nevada's cherished public lands" with the "economic opportunities of developing clean-energy solutions to address the climate crisis for future generations," the offices said in a joint statement to the Sun. "As a leader in both solar and geothermal energy, Nevada is where that is happening – both in striking the proper balance of protecting our shared natural landscapes and opportunities for developing clean, renewable energy," the statement says. Nevada's State Climate Strategy says that while the science of climate change is beyond question, the solutions and how to manage the effects of climate change are complex. It is important to understand all of the tradeoffs and "do the best we can to move forward to find those really positive solutions," Averyt said. "When it comes to climate change, the greater the impacts are, the more complex the challenges," she said. "And in some way the more complex the solutions. So we need to get at it and we need to start having these discussions."