The U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) has approved the largest solar installation in U.S. history, a 690-megawatt project to be constructed on federal land approximately 30 miles north of Las Vegas, Nevada.
The DOI approved the solar power industrial facility on May 11, despite evidence showing solar energy is expensive and requires significant subsidies, and over the objections of environmentalists who have argued the land this particular facility would cover is critical habitat for several rare species including a subspecies of the threatened desert tortoise.
When completed, the $1 billion Gemini Solar Project will be the eighth-largest solar power facility in the world, covering more than 7,100 acres of federal land managed by the DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At peak operating efficiency, the plant should be able to produce enough electricity to power 260,000 homes in the region.
The project, as approved, includes a large, 380 megawatt battery storage system charged by the solar power generated during the day for use during cloudy periods, in early evenings when demand peaks, or for short periods at night.
BLM’s approval comes as Nevada is trying to generate half of its power from renewable sources by 2030.
Cites Recovery, Jobs Effects
The DOI estimates the project will directly employ as many as 900 workers at any given time during construction and create approximately 2,000 direct and indirect jobs, generating an estimated $712.5 million in economic productivity and $3 million in annual revenue for the federal government.
The Gemini Solar Project is an infrastructure project that will help the United States recover from the economic downturn created by government shutdowns imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic, said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt when he announced DOI had approved the project.
“As our economy rebounds from the invisible enemy, President Trump is working to make the United States stronger than ever before,” Bernhardt said. “Our economic resurgence will rely on getting America back to work, and this project delivers on that objective.”
‘Very, Very Expensive’
The Associated Press (AP) noted BLM’s “approval comes despite President Donald Trump’s criticism of renewable energy, including disparaging solar power as ‘very, very expensive’ last spring.”
Data backs up Trump’s concern about solar power’s price tag.
A study produced by the Utah State University Institute of Political Economy reported the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE)—a comparative accounting of the cost of electric power generating sources over a power plant’s lifetime—of producing electricity from solar photovoltaics is $290 per megawatt-hour, 300 percent higher than any other energy source. In 2016 the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimated in 2020 the LCOE for solar PV would be $125.3 per megawatt-hour (mwh), remaining $50/mwh more expensive than the LCOE from exiting coal power plants, $75/mwh more expensive than power from natural gas plants, and $45/mwh more expensive than electricity generated by nuclear plants. These solar cost estimates don’t include the additional costs to taxpayers of various government fees, mandates, and direct and indirect subsidies.
Environmental, Species Concerns
Environmental groups, who often favor or even push for solar power, have expressed serious concerns about this particular facility, warning its construction and continued operations would result in visual blight and possibly imperil the survival of several threatened or endangered species in the area.
The Western Watersheds Project and Basin and Range Watch fought the project for years, lobbying BLM to consider locating it elsewhere.
“We believe solar energy can be an incredibly good thing, but if you put it in the wrong location it can be the worst thing in the world for the environment,” Kevin Emmerich, director of Basin and Range Watch, told AP. “We don’t think it will cause the extinction of the desert tortoise, but it is going to be a fairly big nail in the coffin of the species.”
“The site is also home to two types of rare milkvetch plants, burrowing owls, kit foxes, and wildflowers,” Laura Cunningham, a biologist with the Western Watersheds Project, told the AP.
“The area is rich in biological soil crusts, which sequester large amounts of carbon, but which will now be scraped, bulldozed, mowed, and driven on to construct this industrial power plant,” Cunningham added.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (email@example.com) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
Randy Simmons, et al., “The Unseen Costs Of Solar-Generated Electricity,” Utah State Institute of Political Economy, April 20, 2016: https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/the-unseen-costs-of-solar-generated-electricity
Paul Driessen, “How the Green New Deal’s Renewable Energy Mining Would Harm Humans and the Environment,” The Heartland Institute, April 16, 2020: https://www.heartland.org/news-opinion/news/press-release-how-the-green-new-deals-renewable-energy-mining-would-harm-humans-and-the-environment