Interior Department Approves Largest Solar Project in the U.S.

Photo: Gemini Solar Project

Earlier this week the Trump Administration took a break from its boosting oil and gas (they announced yesterday they are going to buy 1 million barrels of oil for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a “test”) to give final approval to the Gemini Solar Project – a massive $1B solar array and battery storage project situated on federal land near Las Vegas.  When operational in 2022, the project will generate nearly 700 MW of power — enough for the entire Las Vegas metro area — plus it includes an innovative major battery storage capacity that store and deploy over 1,400-megawatt-hours to keep power flowing to the electric grid during the overnight hours.

Why This Matters:  The project went through a streamlined environmental review process, but the final development and operations plan will minimize and mitigate impacts on visual resources, cultural and tribal resources, recreation access, air quality, native vegetation and wildlife such as the desert tortoise, a “threatened” species.  Nevada has made a commitment to generating half of its electricity from renewables by 2030.  It’s amazing that the Trump administration went along with it. Perhaps it helped that it will provide jobs, and was backed by Warren Buffet.  But now industry analysts expect even larger solar projects with a similar battery storage capacity in the near future.  Some good news in the midst of hard times for solar power due to COVID-19.

The Streamlined Environmental Process 

The Bureau of Land Management stated that it conducted a “comprehensive public process” that included “two public meetings during a 45-day public scoping period and two additional public meetings during the 90-day public comment period after the Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) and Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) were released.”  They also conducted government-to-government consultations over several months with a number of Tribes, including the “Moapa Band of Paiutes, Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, Fort Mojave Tribe, Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Bishop Paiute Tribe, Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe.”

Impacts Minimized and Mitigated

The project sits on roughly 7,100 acres of BLM administered land located about 33 miles northeast of Las Vegas — it is directly south of the Moapa River Indian Reservation.  According to the press release on the Record of Decision (ROD), the Final Environmental Impact Statement that the Interior Department chose is a “hybrid” alternative that uses a “combination of traditional development methods in solar array areas (on roughly 2,500 acres) and mowing that leaves vegetation and natural land contours in place on the remaining solar array areas (on approximately 4,600 acres).”

This alternative will, according to the ROD, “result in fewer impacts on native vegetation, potentially reduce impacts to the desert tortoise, reduce impacts to soils that contain seed banks for special-status plant species, and reduce impacts related to the spread of invasive weeds when compared to the Proposed Action. The Hybrid Alternative allows desert tortoise the opportunity to potentially reoccupy approximately 65 percent of the development areas after construction. The Hybrid Alternative employs a new, unproven method of mowing and t0rtoise reoccupation, but it also includes extensive long-term monitoring to better understand the results of this method and to adapt as needed to reduce potential impacts to the desert tortoise.”

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