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December 22, 2014

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ENVIRONMENT:

Amargosa Valley warms up to solar plan

Environmentalists, off-roaders still opposed

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Leila Navidi

Amargosa Valley residents attend a public meeting Tuesday about a solar power project proposed near Big Dune recreation area.

Solar Solutions in Amargosa Valley?

The residents of nearby towns are warming up to the newest proposed solar plant, which would be built on land between U.S. 95 and the Big Dune recreation area on the north end of the Amargosa Valley. But environmentalists and off-roaders still have their doubts.

Solar in Amargosa Valley

The site of a solar power generation project near Big Dune on almost 12 square miles of public land in Amargosa Valley, Nevada Tuesday, January 19, 2010. Launch slideshow »

Amargosa Valley

When it comes to finding a place to build a solar power plant, what a difference a few miles can make.

The latest solar plant plan for Amargosa Valley looks more popular with area residents than previous pitches because it’s farther out of town. And for that same reason, it is likely to be opposed by off-roaders and environmentalists.

Pacific Solar Investments, a Portland, Ore.-based subsidiary of the Spanish company Iberdrola Renewables, is planning a 150-megawatt solar photovoltaic array on more than 1,500 acres of Bureau of Land Management land between U.S. 95 and the Big Dune recreation area on the north end of the Amargosa Valley.

The company has requested a lease on more than 7,000 acres far from Amargosa’s main drag, but next to an environmentally sensitive dune. The land Pacific Solar wants to lease also overlaps a popular off-road race route.

The company says it will give back to the BLM all the land it doesn’t use for its solar plant, but even so, the area could still be paved with solar panels. The Big Dune Project, as the locals call it, is one of numerous solar power plants planned for the valley and some fear the plants will force all off-roaders and desert creatures out of the area.

Government planning maps show that tens of thousands of acres in the Amargosa Valley are sought by solar developers. If all the projects are approved and built, many rural ranches and homesteads would be virtually surrounded by miles of mirrors and solar panels. The landscape would be devoid of foliage, and desert animals would be forced to find new homes. Off-roading would be obliterated or race routes cut off.

Greg Helseth, BLM’s renewable energy project manager for Southern Nevada, said the agency will consider the potential cumulative effects of so many solar plants in one area.

At the BLM’s first public comment meeting, at the Amargosa Valley Community Center on Tuesday night, this much seemed clear: Amargosans are OK with solar just as long as it doesn’t suck their aquifer dry, cause a fleet of trucks to roll past the school and park, or create eyesores behind their back fences.

About 40 residents braved the rain Tuesday to attend the meeting and offer their general support of this latest solar plan. Pacific Solar says it could provide enough clean energy to power about 30,000 Southern Nevada homes while creating hundreds of short-term construction jobs and some permanent jobs the company says it will try to award to locals.

The plant would be built in three 50-megawatt phases, decreasing dust problems and prolonging the jobs of construction workers.

The company hopes to finish the first phase of construction in 2011 and wrap up the final phase by the end of 2013. It also hopes to sell all the electricity to NV Energy through a long-term power purchase agreement.

“We would like to create electricity in Nevada for Nevada,” said Kim Fiske, Pacific Solar’s international managing director.

Amargosans at the meeting said they appreciate the developer’s choice of location far from the town’s main road and its decision to develop the plant with the most water-conserving technology available.

“You’re welcome to my backyard,” resident Gary Gulley said to polite applause.

The mood was dramatically different from that of a meeting for a different project held in the same building last August.

At that meeting, solar developer Solar Millennium unveiled plans for a proposed solar thermal power plant along Amargosa Farm Road.

Locals criticized the Solar Millennium project because of its proposed location between the school and senior center and next to several residential properties. Some also objected to the amount of water the plant’s proposed cooling system would use.

The Pacific Solar Investment project, in contrast, is proposed on land far from the main residential areas of Amargosa Valley and would use different technology that would not need as much water or chemicals.

The proposed first phase of the solar array is near the Big Dune, a place with such unique and threatened plants and animals that parts of it received special protection from the BLM as an “area of critical environmental concern.” The planned solar plant is also near protected habitat for dune beetles.

When solar plants are built, construction crews must scrape the ground clear of vegetation to create a flat, open space on which to build — sometimes involving thousands of acres. This decimates the ecology, removing food and shelter for every living thing in the immediate area.

Desert conservation organization Basin and Range Watch, a large group with members concentrated in six western states including Nevada, is organizing opposition to the solar plant because of its potential effect on ancient creosote bushes, a rare weevil and three rare beetles, including one that lives only on Big Dune.

The area is also populated by endangered desert tortoises.

The discovery of rare flora and fauna wouldn’t necessarily kill a project, but it does mean a developer would have to pay to offset the impact of its project. For example, a developer could agree not to demolish certain trees or to relocate tortoises.

The BLM’s Helseth said the company will have to address such issues as dust abatement, water supply and how to restore the site once the plant is decommissioned in 30 to 40 years.

“We’re looking at all aspects of this project,” he said. “The desert takes a long time to recover and this is a large area.”

The off-road vehicle crowd is expected to dislike the project just as much as environmentalists, and for the same reason: location.

The Big Dune and surrounding desert is a popular spot for dune buggies, three-wheelers, dirt bikes and the like. The proposed project would also obliterate a portion of the route used for desert racing, including the popular Best in the Desert Vegas to Reno race, a contest that winds through 1,000 miles of mostly open desert from Amargosa Valley to Carson City.

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