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October 21, 2014

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Environment:

Turning desert green comes with caveats

When power developers announced plans for coal plants in the Nevada desert, it was clear which side conservation groups would be on: the opposition.

Beyond the Sun

Less clear was how they would react when solar developers announced they would build huge arrays in that same desert.

Because although renewable energy is the darling of the environmental movement — hailed as a cure for our addiction to fossil fuels — solar and other clean power plants can still be hard on the birds and bunnies trying to survive in their shadows.

“Just because it’s green doesn’t mean ... it doesn’t have impacts,” said Kathleen Drakulich, a Nevada attorney with clients who develop renewable energy and more traditional fossil fuel power plants.

Solar fields take up large amounts of land that could be home to desert tortoises, sage grouse or Las Vegas buckwheat. Wind farms can affect populations of migrating birds or elk on the mountaintops where wind blows strongest. And almost any renewable energy development means roads and construction traffic into previously untouched swaths of Nevada wilderness.

But some Nevada conservationists say rather than argue with renewable energy developers after they’ve proposed projects that might harm endangered species or mar recreation areas, they want to help developers choose wind-whipped and sun-soaked sites that are the least environmentally fragile.

“We see the green energy future as very important and something we want to see sooner rather than later,” said John Tull, conservation director for the Nevada Wilderness Project. “We would work with them ... to help strategize toward conservation, to really build these things smart.”

Tull and other conservationists in Nevada and the Southwest used last week’s National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas to meet with developers and politicians to talk about what they’re calling “smart from the start” development. And they’ll meet with conservation groups next week in Durango, Colo., to come up with a Westwide plan to work with the renewables industry.

“Iconic landscapes and public lands of the West are really important for recreation and the integrity of the Western landscape that we have known and loved,” said Monique DiGiorgio, a conservation strategist with the Western Environmental Law Center. “There is a balance between renewable energy and making sure that the places we go hike and backpack ... are still intact.”

The Energy Department estimates that within 20 years, 20 percent of the nation’s power could come from wind and that wind turbines in Nevada could power a million homes. And solar developers say panels covering just 10 percent of the federal land in Nevada could create enough power to supply the entire United States.

But early failures such as that at California’s Altamont Pass, where one of the country’s first wind farms killed golden eagles, have haunted the industry and set it at odds with environmentalists. Other wildlife, including deer, sheep and elk, could be adversely affected by disturbance of Nevada’s mountain peaks to get the giant turbine components, such as 150-foot-long blades, to power plant sites.

And utility-scale solar farms would take up thousands of desert acres that are home to several endangered species, including the desert tortoise.

But with proper placement away from sensitive breeding and feeding grounds, renewable energy plants can be safe for wildlife, developers say.

They say there are few negatives for the industry in talking to conservationists before filing applications to use federal land for their projects.

Because environmental opposition to any project that uses federal land can drag out the lengthy Bureau of Land Management approval process, filing an application that has the support of conservation groups could streamline the process and save developers money.

“You don’t want to be at the end of 10 years of environmental lawsuits,” said one renewables developer who met with Tull and other conservationists last week and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Time is money for consumers, too, when it comes to energy development, because the cost of delays is passed on from developers to the utilities to the consumers who buy the energy.

“The neat thing about the environmental lobby when it comes to renewable energy is that they get it,” Drakulich said. “At least what we’ve heard from them is that there is a balance to be struck between development and mitigating impacts.”

The renewables developer also said it will be important for conservation groups to work with the federal government, which is currently studying where to put transmission lines to get electricity from power plants to cities and the environmental effects of solar development in six Southwestern states, as well as with individual developers.

“We have to investigate what role we can have,” Tull said.

DiGiorgio said reports from the Western Governors’ Association will help lay the framework for many of the conversations environmentalists must have with developers.

In 2007 the governors association adopted a resolution to protect wildlife corridors and crucial habitats, and this year followed up with 140 pages of policies for doing so. The association is also planning renewable energy zones that identify areas rich in resources but screen out wildlife corridors, sensitive plant and animal habitats and other vulnerable public lands.

And conservationists hope the renewables industry will be easier to work with than oil and gas companies or developers of traditional power plants.

“The nice thing about working with renewable energy folks,” Tull said, “is they are not just trying to tap into a good and ready market, but are people who are genuinely interested in helping the environment.”

Still, conservationists in Nevada say they’re working against the mistaken impression that there’s nothing out there in our big desert.

Touting Nevada’s renewables potential at last week’s summit, former President Clinton said Nevada has “enough blank space” for a slew of solar projects.

DiGiorgio said she and other nature lovers “encourage people who think that there is a vast blank space out there to ... look more closely.”

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected. An earlier version misidentified John Tull as an employee of the Nevada Conservation League.

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