With push to build solar on public land, federal, state officials face a growing pressure — deciding where new projects should go

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com.

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Across the West, states are requiring utilities to move away from fossil fuels and increase their portfolios of renewables. The Biden administration is expected to encourage and incentivize the construction of large-scale renewable projects. Congress is already setting the stage for this.

In its spending bill in December, Congress directed the Department of Interior to work toward permitting at least 25 gigawatts of renewable projects on public land by 2025 (yes, this decade).

The two trends place Nevada in the front-and-center. About 85 percent of the state’s land is managed by the federal government in one form or another. And the driest state in the nation also happens to be one of the sunniest, making it a prime location for large-scale solar projects. 

Solar developers are responding. There are about 20 pending applications for solar projects in Nevada, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency that oversees most of the public land in the state. The agency is seeing increasing interest in solar — and not only near Las Vegas, where projects dot the highways. They are seeing interest across Nevada.

Yes, Nevada has lots of public land. But not all public land is open for solar development, and not all public land is appropriate for solar development. As part of their mission, federal land managers are required to balance energy development against its effect on other public interests: hiking trails, recreation, sensitive wildlife habitat, hunting and cultural resources.

Environmental groups (in addition to many Nevadans) want to see action on climate change. Yet they worry that poorly planned solar projects could undermine other pressing issues. The loss of wild places to development. The global push to protect 30 percent of land by 2030. The ongoing threats to imperiled species, including the Mojave desert tortoise and the Greater sage grouse. 

These groups, which range from The Nature Conservancy to the Wilderness Society, are calling on federal and state officials to put projects on less sensitive land or on brownfields (old mines, landfills, etc.) in Nevada. To do so will require coordination at all levels of government. 

Jaina Moan, who works on renewable siting for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, said that the state has a role to play in this, even though most land is managed by federal agencies.

The state, Moan said, “can work with the Public Utilities Commission, [and] they can work more closely with the federal land agencies to ensure that the siting is appropriate for these projects."

Other states, such as Massachusetts, have passed laws to encourage renewable development on brownfields and have worked to assuage concerns developers might have about funding their projects (it’s cheaper to build on untouched land) or assuming liability for past industrial activity.

If it all sounds easy, identifying land for solar development is incredibly hard, and past planning efforts have generated mixed results. BLM land managers already have a system that attempts to direct solar development into low-impact areas, known as Solar Energy Zones.  

There are five Solar Energy Zones in Nevada, but projects have only ever been built in one of the zones. Instead, developers have opted to build in other areas. That’s often because of cost and access to transmission. Developers cite transmission as a big factor in where to locate a project.

What’s more, many projects rely on leases that were issued before the Solar Energy Zones were created in 2014, noted Dustin Mulvaney, an associate professor at UC Santa Cruz who studies how renewable energy siting intersects with other interests, particularly on public land.

“In some ways, the whole thing is irrelevant,” he said. “A great majority of the solar farms that are on public land were all exempt from the Western Solar Plan,” which created the zones.

Yet Mulvaney said there are still opportunities to balance conservation and development.

“There's a lot of people pushing people into false choices, pitting conservation and renewable energy,” he said, noting that other parts of the country have found ways to marry both concerns.

With a new round of interest in solar development, the question of planning is coming to the forefront again. Where should the solar go and how do you incentivize development in low-impact areas? Alex Daue, assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society, said the Solar Energy Zones still provide a good planning framework to move forward. 

He pointed to the Dry Lake Solar Zone, the one low-impact area in Nevada that has attracted development. By building there, he noted, developers have been able to speed up permitting. The focus now, he said, should be on identifying more areas that are closer to transmission.

“The federal government should be increasing the incentives for development in these areas,” he said, adding that agency officials should prioritize solar permitting in these designated areas. 

Daue said planning is especially important now with an expected uptick of solar projects.

“We know what the alternative is,” he said. “We have seen projects proposed and built in areas that are not low-impact. And without upfront planning, we'll probably see the same.”

Yet for other environmentalists, including Basin and Ranch Watch’s Kevin Emmerich, solar should only be placed on public land as a “last resort.” Instead, Emmerich is advocating for the Biden administration to emphasize developing solar projects on brownfields and rooftops.

“I would hope that they have learned from some of the impacts in the past and would like to work with us in siting these a little more properly,” Emmerich said in an interview this week.

A lot of what happens next will happen at the administrative level — at the discretion of federal land managers. In Southern Nevada, BLM land managers have created a formalized process for looking at solar projects when they are proposed outside of the Solar Energy Zones. 

The Southern Nevada District Office, in August, looked at 16 large-scale solar projects and ranked them. Kristen Cannon, a spokesperson for the office, said “applications that have high resource conflicts such as anticipated high density of sensitive cultural or historic resources, desert tortoise connectivity corridors, overlap with designated utility corridors and Special Recreation Management Areas are ranked lower than those that don’t have these conflicts.” 

Three projects were ranked as high priority, two were ranked as medium priority and 10 were considered pending, a designation that means more information is needed to move forward. 

On some projects, this process has already had an immediate effect. For instance, it means that the agency is prioritizing other projects over some that are closely-watched and have attracted local opposition. The Battle Born Solar Project is one such project, expected to span about 9,000 acres of the Mormon Mesa in the Moapa Valley. Last year, Gov. Steve Sisolak wrote a letter to the Trump administration seeking to fast-track permitting for the project. But as KNPR reported in December, local residents rallied against the project, which could affect recreation. 

For now, the BLM is prioritizing other solar projects. In a Dec. 9 email the agency sent to Lisa Childs, an organizer opposing the project, the agency put it like this “We have identified several other applications for solar energy development projects that have anticipated lower potential for resource conflicts that we have prioritized for review, so it is unknown when the Bureau of Land Management would be able to begin any work on the Battle Born project application.”

Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

Western Shoshone activist, Carrie Dann, dies: Carrie Dann, whose decades-long fight for Western Shoshone lands in the Great Basin went to the U.S. Supreme Court and the United Nations, died this week. With her sister Mary, Carried Dann battled federal land managers over the right to graze on ancestral Western Shoshone land across northeastern Nevada. 

For decades, the Dann sisters refused to pay grazing fees to federal land managers, a dispute that eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. Dann also fought back against the federal government’s permitting of gold mines and in Western Shoshone territory and raised concerns about the legacy of atomic testing. The Dann sisters’ activism, at times, put them at odds with other members from the Western Shoshone tribes, many of whom sought to settle outstanding claims with the federal government. The Associated Press published a piece about Dann’s passing. 

At Anaconda, mining is on the table: The Bureau of Land Management held its first meeting Tuesday night about whether to privatize public land at the former Anaconda Copper Mine, an effort that would leave the federal government with little oversight over a complex mine cleanup (the mine polluted local groundwater with uranium and sulfate). For more context, I wrote about the proposal last year. The meeting was largely uneventful, but one thing did stand out to me.

The agency is in the process of conducting an environmental assessment of the proposed land transfer. Watchdog groups want the review to consider how privatizing public land could affect future mining. But when questions about future mining at the site came up during the meeting, a consultant for the agency appeared to suggest that there weren’t proposals for re-mining at the Anaconda Copper Mine. This contradicts much of the reporting I’ve done. Here is what I know: 

In an interview in 2019, state regulators discussed re-mining and said that it could, in fact, be a big part of the method for remediating the mine. As I reported in 2019, a company has actively explored the site for mining. A recent document, filed with state regulators as part of the cleanup process, stated that “future development of the site is likely to support mining and may include construction of additional office space/or mineral processing facilities” (emphasis mine). That document was filed by the Atlantic Richfield Company, which wants to acquire the public land.

Climate change is changing the Colorado River: The Arizona Republic’s Ian James wrote a sobering piece on the ways that climate change is already affecting the Colorado River Basin and what’s at stake for the seven states and two countries that depend on the watershed. 

The big takeaway is that the future is going to require everyone to give a little. The difficult part is how to do that in an equitable manner. The quote that struck me came from the head of the Colorado River District: “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what's on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.”

“We all have a share in this.” In an interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Sammy Roth, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, Jeff Kightlinger, echoed this sentiment about collaboration on the Colorado River, regardless of legal right. The Q&A is very interesting and worth reading. Kightlinger also discussed a recent investment by the Southern Nevada Water Authority in a Southern California wastewater recycling project.

Expect to hear more about the Salton Sea: Everything in the Colorado River is connected. And even conservation and cutbacks in some places can lead to environmental consequences. That’s what’s happening at the Salton Sea, a public health crisis continuing to create dust and air quality problems in California’s Imperial Valley, as The Desert Sun’s Mark Olalde explains in a collaboration with High Country News. A must-read about the struggle to fund a cleanup.

‘A brave new world when it comes to snow and wildfire:’ KUNC’s Luke Runyon reports on what we know — and what we don’t know — about how wildfires affect drinking water supplies. 

The Navajo Generating Station is demolished: A hugely symbolic moment for the West and the end of an era that leaves behind a complex legacy. The Arizona Republic’s Ryan Randazzo reports on the demolition of the Navajo Generating Station, once the largest coal-fired power plant in the West. It sent electrons to utilities across the Southwest, including to NV Energy. 

“The demolition of the largest coal burner in the West is a milestone for environmentalists who fought, and continue to fight, to shift the country to renewable energy,” Randazzo wrote. “But it was a somber moment for the hundreds of people who worked at the plant, some following multiple generations of family members before them, who benefited from the good-paying jobs.” 

Two degrees of warming: A new study this week found that “the amount of baked-in global warming, from carbon pollution already in the air, is enough to blow past international agreed upon goals to limit climate change,” Seth Borenstein reported for the Associated Press. Still, that amount of global warming — about 2.3 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times — could be delayed for centuries with rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the study found.

The delegation and the Green New Deal: Last week, my colleague Humberto Sanchez noted that no Nevada Democrats in the congressional delegation have endorsed the Green New Deal. In interviews, Democratic members of the delegation stressed that they wanted to see Congress take more action on climate change, despite stopping short of backing the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan championed by environmental activists and progressive members of Congress. 

Mountain towns in the time of COVID-19: Deeply reported piece by High Country News’ Nick Bowlin on the growing struggles and tensions facing small mountain towns during COVID-19, as wealthy part-time residents move away from cities and flock to second homes, putting a strain on resources. This story looks at an attempt by a group of second-homeowners, frustrated by COVID-19 rules in one Colorado county, to create a Super PAC and influence local politics. 

Nevada climate strategy outlines framework to phase out natural gas, electrify transportation

An array of solar panels at the Copper Mountain Solar 3 facility

The goal is clear: To reduce statewide greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The challenge is how to get there. 

A plan released this week by state agencies and delivered to Gov. Steve Sisolak on Tuesday outlined Nevada’s first “climate strategy” for zeroing out carbon emissions within the next three decades, what scientists say is an imperative for governments across the country to prevent the worst effects of a warming world — skyrocketing heat, extreme wildfires, limited water supplies. 

The strategy, a lengthy and comprehensive document, represents a significant turning point for a state government that has, for years, touted its record on encouraging renewable energy but has shied away from tackling climate change in a coordinated way. 

“It is about process,” said Kristen Averyt, who led the report’s drafting and is a former president of the Desert Research Institute. “It is about stitching climate action into the state.”

At its core, the report lays out a pathway for Nevada to achieve a cost-effective transition from natural gas and electrify the transportation sector, which is the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. Although the strategy does not dictate policy to the Legislature, local governments and state regulators, it analyzes and recommends several policies to pursue.

The strategy, Averyt stressed, is a “living document,” meant to set a foundation for future reports and analysis. And it was also meant to set expectations. Averyt acknowledged that the report is different from efforts that other states have taken. It intentionally leans into the challenges and the nuances, many specific to Nevada, that come with reducing emissions to net-zero by 2050.

“We have to get to zero emissions,” Averyt said. “Nothing is off the table.”

“We just have to be smart about how we do it,” she added.

For the 17 core policies analyzed in the report, the state established a framework that looked at each recommendation using four metrics: a policy’s potential for decreasing emissions, climate justice considerations, economic implications and the legal feasibility of implementing a policy.

Climate activists said the report is a significant step in the state’s efforts on climate action. It is important that there is a strategy, they said. But although the strategy considers climate justice — that marginalized communities are often disproportionately affected by climate impacts and the cost of climate action — activists said more work is needed to adequately center those issues. 

“Everything [the state does] around climate change — or even when we talk about affordable housing and transportation in general — should be looked at from an environmental justice lens,” said Cinthia Moore, a Las Vegas-based organizer with EcoMadres, which represents Latino parents and advocates for clean air. “And that should be the driver of these policies."

The report marks a nearly two-year effort to redirect the state’s focus toward addressing climate change, an effort that began in the 2019 Legislature. During the legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that set the state’s first economy-wide emission reduction goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

State officials estimate that, on its current path, Nevada would fall 4 percent short of the goal to decrease total greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025, 19 percent short of cutting emissions 45 percent by 2030 and significantly short of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

The 2050 goal is in line with pledges made by other governments and corporations. Although the effort to reduce emissions will require investment, the strategy notes that meeting the emission goals could prevent between $172 and $786 million in economic damages associated with carbon pollution by 2030. Meeting the 2050 goal, the report finds, could prevent billions in damages.

In a statement prepared with the report’s release, Sisolak said climate action must play a role in building back a more “climate-friendly and equitable” economy after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Sisolak, who ordered the report as part of his Nevada Climate Initiative, said it “serves as the critical framework necessary to elevate climate action and foster a healthy, vibrant, climate-resilient future for all Nevadans – especially our most disadvantaged community members who live in the areas experiencing the greatest climate-related health and economic impacts.”

Decarbonization of the electric sector

In reducing economy-wide emissions, decarbonizing the electric sector is the first step.

Emissions from generating electricity — burning coal and natural gas for power — accounted for roughly 32 percent of total economy-wide emissions in 2016, according to an analysis released by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

That 32 percent share means the electric generation is now the second largest greenhouse gas contributor in Nevada — behind the transportation sector with a 35 percent share of emissions. 

But even though power plants contribute a smaller share of emissions than the transportation sector, transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy remains a prerequisite. As with most carbon reduction plans across the globe, Nevada’s strategy rests on electrification. The strategy aims to electrify transportation and make buildings more reliant on electric appliances, rather than gas ones.

That framework puts NV Energy front-and-center. It will require the utility to potentially hasten its transition from a majority fossil-fuel supply to a majority-renewable supply. At the same time, the utility has predicted that its demand will likely increase as other sectors require more electricity.  

In recent years, the state has made progress toward reducing power plant emissions, requiring the closure of coal plants in Southern Nevada and adding massive utility-scale solar projects to the grid. And in November, voters passed a ballot measure, amending the Nevada Constitution, to require utilities to have a supply portfolio of 50 percent renewables by 2030. The constitutional amendment adds more weight to a similar requirement that was unanimously passed by the Legislature last year. 

Still, the strategy recognizes that the electric sector needs to move faster. But how that reduction in emissions is achieved is left open-ended. David Bobzien, who directs the Governor’s Office of Energy and helped write the utility-related section of the report, said that was on purpose. 

“Even with our aggressive [renewable portfolio standard], there is water yet uncharted beyond that 50 percent standard,” Bobzien said. “How do we get to 100 percent? It's great that we have the goal there, but we do know that the last 50 percent is going to be complicated.”

On Thursday, NV Energy spokesperson Jennifer Schuricht said in an email that the strategy “provides a framework to examine all sources of carbon emissions and to create solutions that bring meaningful long-term environmental and economic benefits to all Nevadans at affordable prices. We look forward to working with our policymakers as we pursue these opportunities.”

A recent report, commissioned by the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), suggested that the state might need a renewable requirement closer to 80 percent by 2030 to remain on track with its emission goals. But the state’s report did not describe a specific policy, instead leaving open the possibility that policies other than a renewable standard could be used. 

NV Energy, which serves about 90 percent of Nevada’s electricity needs, recently filed a report with the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) outlining its net-zero carbon goals. That report stresses the need to diversify its portfolio, build more transmission and manage demand.

The utility’s report suggests that the state might need to move away from a renewable standard in the future and toward other policies aimed more specifically at the grid’s carbon emissions.

In the PUCN filing, the utility said that “in the future, the state's decarbonizing efforts may benefit from a transition away from [renewable portfolio standard] targets in favor of decarbonizing policies to avoid conflict and increase impact across more sectors of the economy.”

NV Energy also warned against policies that entirely eliminate fossil fuel production or policies that limit carbon intensity from existing plants until there were renewable alternatives available.

A transition away from natural gas as the default

Despite transitioning away from coal-fired power plants and adding solar over the past decade, natural gas comprises the majority of NV Energy’s power supply. Simultaneously, natural gas is used in most homes and in commercial buildings for heating and cooking, adding to the state’s carbon footprint. 

A common theme in the report was the need for not only a substantive change but also a shift in thinking around natural gas — a transition away from the default policy of planning to use the fossil fuel well into the future.

The climate strategy specifically calls out a policy that allows utility regulators and NV Energy to use natural gas plants — rather than renewables — as placeholders in planning the utility's long-term supply.

Every three years, NV Energy is required to submit an exhaustive planning documented known as an Integrated Resource Plan. In that plan, natural gas plants that are often used as placeholders in forecasting long-term supply scenarios. The climate strategy suggests that eliminating the policy would improve the ability to plan for an electric grid that more closely reflects the state’s net-zero by 2050 goal.

“[The policy] basically says there are no goals or requirements to phase out fossil fuel reliance," said Cameron Dyer, a clean energy staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates.

“We need to get these natural gas placeholders out of being the vogue,” he added.

The climate strategy also looks at other ways to improve planning and reduce natural gas use, including changing the incentives that guide the utility when it comes to crafting its rates. 

But one of the most significant aspects of the state’s climate strategy is that, for the first time, it points policymakers beyond electricity, calling on them to phase out natural gas in buildings

The climate strategy says that “while Nevada’s electricity sector transitions from fossil fuels to zero-emissions renewables, the state must also transition from fossil-fuel combustion in homes and commercial buildings in the form of burning gas for cooking, hot water, and space heating.”

Bobzien said he did not expect this to happen overnight. 

"It's important to remember the time-scale contemplated by this framework,” he said. “It's a long-term transition to these technologies or newer homes, and it has to be sensitive to costs.” 

Environmental advocates — and the climate strategy itself — said a preliminary goal would be to ensure that consumers could choose between electric and natural gas.

The report said “a potential first step in a phased transition from gas would be to allow consumers the choice between gas and electric on existing buildings but require all-electric in new construction.

Echoing the climate strategy, Elspeth DiMarzio, an organizer with the Sierra Club, stressed that policymakers must look for ways to prevent the buildout of more natural gas pipelines that would need to be retired before the investments could be paid off.

“If you lock in new gas infrastructure now, we’ll be dealing with the ramifications for the next 30-plus years,” she said, noting that investments are typically paid off in rates. 

Questions about cost and land use

Southwest Gas, the state’s largest natural gas utility, said in a statement that the company was committed to working with the state on climate goals but was concerned about costs. 

“We believe any conversation about the sustainable energy future must consider the cost burden to Nevadans,” Scott Leedom, the utility’s director of public affairs, said in an email.

“Policy-driven electrification shifts the cost to consumers away from one of the lowest monthly utility bills they face, natural gas, to one of the highest, electricity. The voices of those who rely on natural gas to make financial ends meet in homes and businesses must be heard,” he said.

Bobzien, however, noted that electric appliances are steadily evolving to become more efficient and less costly. He pointed to the fact that costs can accelerate quickly with increased demand. 

“History has shown that these cost-curves can accelerate quickly — solar being the perfect example,” Bobzien said (the price of solar has dramatically decreased over the last decade).

Additionally, the climate strategy recommends several other policies to reduce the energy consumption of buildings: appliance efficiency standards, energy codes for net-zero buildings and the expansion of energy efficient and energy-savings contract programs. 

Nat Hodgson, CEO of the Southern Nevada Home Builders Association, said he supports the goals to reduce carbon emissions, and he was an early backer of energy efficient codes. But he cautioned an approach that could raise costs in a way that were passed down to homebuyers. 

“I'm also the guy you call about housing affordability,” he said. 

Hodgson said new homes are already far more energy-efficient than they were a decade ago. Most homes in Southern Nevada, he said, exceed standards for energy efficiency. 

But Hodgson said housing prices could increase if there were requirements for things like charging stations or specialized outlets to allow for electric appliances in the future. He said the more cost-effective strategy would be to focus funding on retrofitting existing homes. 

“Everything we can do, "he said. “But it comes at a cost. The number one issue is affordability.”

Environmental groups said climate change demands an upfront investment that, with the right mix of incentives and rulemaking, will ultimately benefit the consumer and keep costs down. If new homes are retrofitted for a future that demands electrified buildings, it will pay dividends when there is increased demand for electric appliances. 

“It's not in our head that we're going to flip a switch and do this all in a year and everyone is going to have a fully electric efficient building,” said Dylan Sullivan, a senior policy analyst with NRDC. “It's not going to happen like that. It doesn't make sense for it to happen like that."

He said electric alternatives to gas appliances, including heat pump water heaters, are competitively priced. Sullivan said it just requires a change in thinking about building. He also pushed back on the idea that preparing homes for electric appliances is more costly.

“It's only a sunk cost if you go in and install the gas appliance,” he said. 

And many businesses support climate action. Two days after the strategy was released, the Reno and Sparks Chamber of Commerce held a series panels on the climate strategy that brought in a range of perspectives, from the Nevada Mining Association to the Sierra Club. The chamber’s CEO, Ann Silver, said in an interview that she was supportive of the strategy, noting that there were a lot of things that individuals could do to help reduce emissions. 

“I don't think we should view this as something costly,” Silver said. “To me, it's comparable to wearing a mask. Maybe you are spending $3.99 on a mask, but that’s saving a death."

Silver said businesses want to show that they are acting on climate change, and it’s often demanded by customers. She noted that change does not happen overnight. But when there is a choice to be made — like replacing old light bulbs or replacing a fleet of vehicles — businesses and consumers should consider the climate implications of their actions. 

“I don't think we've done enough to normalize the activities that should occur,” she said.

Beyond economic costs, a massive deployment of renewables to offset natural gas could have significant environmental costs on the landscape and protected habitat for imperiled species, from the Mojave desert tortoise to the Greater sage grouse.

Environmentalists and wilderness advocates said that the climate crisis is a top priority, but they have urged the state to adopt a careful planning approach that avoids causing further environmental damage in pursuing more renewable energy infrastructure. 

Jaina Moan, external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy in Nevada, has advocated for siting solar, as much as possible, on previously developed land, like abandoned mines. 

The state’s strategy acknowledges issues around siting renewables, advocating a “smart-from-the-start” approach. Moan hopes to see a continued commitment from the state.

“A commitment and incentives for developing on lower-impact lands are needed,” she said.

Reducing emissions in transportation

As the state phases out natural gas, the strategy emphasizes the need to transition away from fossil fuels in the transportation sector, the leading source of the state's emissions.

To do so, the climate strategy included five policy proposals: the adoption of low- and zero-emissions vehicle standards, a clean truck program, low-carbon fuel standards, a “cash for clunkers” program and ending a loophole that allows car owners to evade emission checks. 

Electrifying the transportation sector was identified as one of the most complex issues facing the state’s decarbonization goal, one that requires buy-in from consumers and an array of state and local governmental agencies responsible for roads and infrastructure.

In addition to adopting electrification policies, the report said the state should also look for ways to manage transportation demand, decreasing the number of miles traveled in personal vehicles and increasing incentives for public transit and telecommuting.

Tackling how cars are used is crucial, the report said, with the number of miles traveled in cars — calculated as Vehicle Miles Traveled — increasing faster than the population.

“If this trend does not change,” the report says, “[emission] targets will be difficult to meet, even with aggressive changes to vehicle efficiency and fuel type, due to turnover rate of vehicles and other transportation-related [greenhouse gas] emissions, such as roadway building and maintenance.”

Despite the headwinds, the report also casts electrifying transportation as an opportunity. 

“Nevada is uniquely poised to capitalize on its unique assets by leveraging growth in the EV sector to become a hub for transportation electrification,” the report said.

The strategy notes that Nevada could play a role in the electric-vehicle supply chain, given the need for more lithium. The country’s only active lithium operation is based outside of Tonopah, and over the past five years, there has been an increase in lithium exploration.

Earlier this year, Nevada started a rulemaking process to adopt low and zero-emission vehicle standards through an initiative known as Clean Cars Nevada. Such standards, adopted in 14 states and modeled after California’s rules, would require car manufacturers to sell low-emission vehicles in Nevada and set credit targets for zero-emission vehicles. 

Andrew MacKay, executive director of the Nevada Franchised Auto Dealers Association and a former chairman of the Nevada Transportation Authority, said he was not surprised by the proposals and said there were some common-sense ideas. He cited closing the “classic car” loophole, which allows newer cars to avoid emission inspections, as one.

But he also said his group would ultimately not support the adoption of emission standards, instead preferring a national standard and letting markets guide electric-vehicle adoption.

“My opinion is this: Let the market work," MacKay said.

Despite disagreements with some of the policy recommendations, MacKay said he wanted to see the state address climate change and was impressed by the breadth of the strategy.

"This is going to result in the drafting of big pieces of legislation, regulatory efforts and the whole nine yards,” MacKay said, noting momentum in state government to take action.

What happens at the state level is only one aspect of climate action. The report comes as large corporations set net-zero goals, demanding a more fuel-efficient and eventually zero-carbon supply chain, and as car manufacturers seek to create new electric products to meet those goals. There is also another big player in the transportation sector: California. 

Paul Enos, who heads the Nevada Trucking Association, said that what California does can have a big effect in Nevada. He said many of his members already have trucks that meet California standards, so regulatory changes in Nevada could have a more minimal effect.

He said the climate strategy’s analysis of a new Clean Trucks Program provided a “honest assessment,” considering the economics and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The reality is that so many of the trucks that are based here in Nevada, operating here in Nevada, they're already meeting the California standard,” Enos said in an interview.

Many of the big players in the trucking industry are already moving toward reducing their emissions as large corporate end-users look to meet their sustainability goals, Enos said. But any new rules could have a disparate impact on smaller trucking companies. And unlike in California, he said Nevada might not have the ability to offer incentives to smaller players in the industry. He said state regulators should weigh that with any rules they create.

"California can afford to get a lot of things wrong that we can’t afford to do in Nevada,” Enos said. “I worry about the small guys. I worry about the owner-operators.”

Starting a conversation on climate justice

For all of the policies analyzed, the state’s strategy considers climate justice issues as one of the four most primary metrics to guide the state’s action on reducing carbon emissions. 

Averyt, who led the report’s drafting as the head of the Nevada Climate Initiative, said this was a critical part of the report. In the coming months and years, Averyt expects that more information will be added to the strategy and the state will produce additional reports. 

She said climate justice will continue to be used as a metric to analyze policy. 

Across the nation and in Nevada, the effects of climate change often fall disproportionately on marginalized communities, amplifying inequality. More heat in urban areas, for instance, can lead to increased energy demand for cooling among residents who already spend a larger percentage of their income on electricity bills. In other cases, power plants and freeways with high emissions have historically been sited near low-income neighborhoods. 

At the same time, the action needed to address climate change can also disproportionately affect marginalized communities, often least responsible for creating the problem.

Climate justice activists in Nevada are concerned with both issues. They said the report was a starting point, but they hope to see more direct climate justice policies in the future. 

“My initial reaction was that it was a good start, but it was leaving out a lot of policies that I wanted to see discussed,” said Ainslee Archibald, a coordinator for the Nevada Environmental Justice Coalition. “I felt it was kind of half of what we needed and half of what we didn’t.”

Early on, the strategy argues that climate action could be a way to correct environmental injustices that occurred in the past and create a more equitable economy moving forward.

“Through climate action, there is the opportunity to reconcile the social justice challenges Nevadans face,” the report said a few paragraphs into the Executive Summary section. 

For Archibald, who is also an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in Las Vegas, that would mean a transition from market-based systems to policies with fewer barriers to access. She said she would like to see more consideration placed on public transit and energy choice, the ability to produce rooftop solar and community solar in a way that is cost-effective. 

Moore, an organizer for EcoMadres and a member of the coalition, echoed these calls. 

“It's great that we are talking about electrification of vehicles and electric infrastructure but we need to think about ways to make these things accessible to everyone,” Moore said.

She said part of what the state should do, moving forward, is ensure more direct outreach to communities rather than conduct public outreach primarily on social media. Doing so, she said, would allow officials to more adequately address climate justice in policy making.

“There is so much work that still needs to be done,” Moore said.

Panel considers benefits — and challenges — of placing solar projects on mine sites

For similar reasons that Las Vegas homebuilders look to build in the city’s outlying areas, solar developers often seek federal public land when looking for where to place large-scale projects. The land is easy to develop. It is open. It stretches on for miles. But these solar projects routinely run into roadblocks, conflicting with other uses of federal land, which belongs to all Americans. 

Recent solar and wind projects, proposed to operate on the federal land that comprises most of Nevada, have come into conflict with wildlife corridors, public access and conservation areas. That tension has split environmental groups, allies united by tackling climate change but divided over how to deploy massive amounts of clean energy without squeezing natural habitats. And it has led many organizations to ask: What if solar developers are looking in the wrong places? 

Last year, the Nature Conservancy and the Nevada Mining Association proposed and helped pass a regulatory change to make solar arrays an option for cleaning-up and closing old mines, disturbed land unburdened by the conflicts that exist on untouched federal land. The idea is to direct new solar projects to brownfield sites while giving companies another option for reclamation. Mines also have existing roads and transmission, easing some of the barriers for energy development.

“We can scale up redevelopment of mine lands,” Jaina Moan, an external affairs director for The Nature Conservancy focused on climate, said during a panel on Saturday. “Renewable energy deployment can be an alternative to reclamation, and it can also support mining operations.”

The panel, part of the mining association’s annual meeting in Stateline, dug into the proposal, focusing on what it would take to actually locate renewables on operating or closed mines. As with prioritizing infill development in cities, what is often seen as a “win-win” by land use experts faces a challenging uphill battle when it comes to permitting, financing and economics. 

A panel on renewable energy at the Nevada Mining Association’s annual convention, Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019 at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe in South Lake Tahoe, Nev. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Although renewables have been placed on brownfields elsewhere in the country — and the world (there is solar on an old coal plant in Canada) — the idea has not fully taken hold in Nevada, though some projects have been proposed. In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency looked at the Bullfrog mine near Beatty as a pilot project to test solar arrays on scarred land.  And Moan said the conservancy is exploring other opportunities. 

Although developers can potentially amplify the environmental benefits of solar by building on brownfields, they face several challenges. One is that solar contracts usually require a long-term commitment from an offtaker, often through a contract known as a power purchase agreement, for a term that can last as long as two decades. Permitting solar fields can also be a challenge because mining companies are required to outline a closure strategy before operations begin. Finally, it can be more difficult to entice solar developers to consider brownfields because the sites often require more technical expertise to build on and there are concerns about taking on additional liability. 

Moan said some of these issues can be dealt with early in the process, including in permitting. She emphasized that there were also opportunities to integrate solar into existing mining operations. Those could potentially be expanded — or scaled up — once a mine went out of operation.

“These considerations can also be made from mining companies who are in the exploration phase in thinking about their operating plans — and thinking about their reclamation and closure plans — and including renewable energy on that,” she said during the panel discussion.

John Seeliger, a regional energy manager for Nevada Gold Mines (a newly formed joint-venture between Barrick and Newmont), said renewables are taking a “higher priority” for the company. He suggested on-site renewables could also help with some transmission issues in Northern Nevada.

In part, the interest in renewables is a recognition of the economics. Energy analysts expect the cost of generation for solar to decrease in Nevada and the cost of natural gas to gradually rise through the next two decades. Although those estimates rely on a metric — the Levelized Cost of Electricity — that does not take into consideration external issues, the cost of intermittency (in the case of solar) or the cost of greenhouse gas emissions (in the case of natural gas), they provide a rough estimate for the lowest cost option for constructing new power generation. And in Nevada, that option is solar.

Mines have traditionally sourced their power from an electric utility or power plants that are able to produce electricity regardless of whether the sun is shining. (Nevada Gold Mines owns one of the state’s last two coal plants.) That's because reliability is integral to mining operations, Seeliger noted. 

“A mining process is a 24/7 operation, and we can’t afford to look at lowering [power supplies] at night because obviously our process has to continue to move forward,” he said. 

But he added that the costs and technology for battery storage technology is changing rapidly. Batteries can store excess solar energy produced during the day, which allows power users to access those electrons at night.

Part of the challenge in getting operations to adopt renewables — both for on-site use and at legacy sites — are competing interests within a company, said Ned Harvey, a managing director for industry and heavy transport at the Rocky Mountain Institute, which advocates for clean energy.

“I think the biggest problem is the barrier between corporate interests and operating interests,” he said.

Harvey explained that mining firms have a structural incentive to meet immediate performance metrics. That can make it difficult to convince companies to commit to a project perceived as new, technical or risky.

Photo courtesy of Great Basin Center for Geothermal Energy.

But it’s not just about solar. Jim Faulds, who directs the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, argued that there is a potential to include geothermal in mining operations. Because of the Great Basin’s dynamic geology,  there is a significant amount of untapped geothermal, a renewable resource that taps into energy stored in hot underground water. Potential for geothermal energy often overlaps with mineral deposits, Faulds said, making it an option for  heating or renewable energy, if the economics penciled out. 

Las Vegas Rep. Dina Titus, who spoke after the panel, offered an update on federal mining legislation and said she was concerned about how the Trump administration’s trade war with China could affect the industry.

“Regardless of what the administration may think, our economy is globally linked,” she said. "Your industry does not stop at the border."

Large-scale solar, wind and geothermal developers hit project headwinds on public land

Solar field in Nevada

With Nevada and other Western states discussing ways to increase the use of renewables, a big question is lingering in the background: Where will all the new solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal plants go?

The answer, at least in part: public land owned by the federal government.

The question then becomes: Where?

Because the federal government manages about 85 percent of the land in Nevada, large-scale solar, wind and geothermal developers are often looking to build projects on public land.

“I'd say public land plays a huge role in the furthering of renewable energy," David Bobzien, who runs Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Office of Energy, said during an interview this week.

But siting a project can be costly and challenging in the face of balancing the disturbances of development with public access, wildlife and recreation. The tension can often split allies.

One example: Most environmentalists see renewables as a primary way to reduce fossil fuel consumption and tackle climate change. But within that group, many are wary that a laser-like focus on building out renewables could further fragment the landscape and harm imperiled species.

Nevada is at the center of this tension.

With ample land and its proximity to big Western markets like California, the state is already benefiting from the increased demand for renewables. On Earth Day, Sisolak is expected to sign legislation raising the state’s renewable standards to 50 percent by 2030.

Earlier this month, Environmental Entrepreneurs released a report showing the state was first for clean energy job growth in 2018. According to data compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association, Nevada was fifth in the nation for installing photovoltaic panels last year.

Katherine Gensler, the association’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said federal permitting has improved in the last decade. She said the “good news” is that agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have put procedures in place tailored to permitting solar projects.

“The good news here is that 12 years ago, there was no process,” Gensler said. “There was literally no procedure in place to do solar on BLM-managed land. It was a new journey for everyone involved — the BLM staff and the solar industry.”

The bad news, she said, is that the agency, which manages more than 65 percent of Nevada’s land, is charging rents that are “markedly higher than what private land rates are going for” and not sending royalties back to local communities. Although the BLM has expedited the permitting process in the last five years, the time and cost involved can be a consideration for developers.

Cost and time are not the only concerns. The BLM manages its land for multiple uses that include conservation, recreation and energy production. These missions often conflict with proposed renewable energy projects. In November, the BLM denied a Southern Nevada wind project amid opposition from environmentalists, the Review-Journal reported. The area was near wilderness and and an important spiritual site for lower Colorado River tribes.

One of the environmental groups that opposed that project, Basin and Range Watch, has advocated rooftop solar and siting solar arrays in the built environment rather than in untouched desert.

Even among opponents of the wind project, there was a divide about how to move forward in deploying more solar. Alex Daue, an assistant director for energy and climate at The Wilderness Society, came out against the wind project but does not oppose all large-scale renewables. He said there is a place for renewables on public land if projects are in appropriate locations.

“We definitely believe that public lands should be part of our climate solution, and right now they are part of the problem,” Daue said, pointing to how much oil is extracted on public land.

That line could pick up steam in the Democratic presidential primary. As part of a presidential campaign platform on public lands, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she would try to shift energy generation so 10 percent of U.S. energy came from renewables offshore or on public land. To do that, Daue said the BLM needs to continue identifying places with low conflicts.

Daue applauded the BLM for designating the Dry Lake solar zone outside of Las Vegas. The designation was an attempt to target solar projects to an area with existing fragmentation.

The Nature Conservancy has also proposed pushing more solar development to brownfield sites, like mines, although such development is costly, and there are regulatory concerns.

"When you are talking about the implementation of renewable portfolio standards, siting is really important. It needs to be part of the conversation from the beginning,” said Jaina Moan, who works on climate issues as an external affairs director with the conservancy.

Moan noted that the group has worked on a computer model to identify areas in which there is high solar and wind potential, but low conflicts with imperiled species and wildlife corridors.

"It allows land managers to take [geospatial] data and overlay them on maps to really figure out where the best sites are,” Moan said. “[It does] two things: maximize resource potential and at the same time identify those areas if they are in low-impact zones so they have a minimal impact on species distribution, biodiversity, wildlife corridors and that kind of thing.”

Solar is not the only renewable that runs into conflicts with federal land. Geothermal does, too.

For instance, the proposed withdrawal of about 600,000 acres of federal land for the Navy’s expansion of its Fallon range could hinder geothermal development in high-potential areas. The state is still planning to negotiate with the Navy on how to mitigate the impacts of that proposal.

Rich Perry, who runs the Division of Minerals and oversees state permitting for geothermal, said that about 60 percent of the state’s geothermal generation is produced on federal land.

“Most of the growth in the last few years has been on federal leases,” he said.

In addition to challenges around siting large-scale renewable generation, finding appropriate locations for transmission lines can be just as difficult. Environmentalists often oppose new lines because they fragment wild places. Transmission lines also often require new roads, creating more problems for wildlife. And transmission towers can also be a boon for avian predators, a place to nest for birds like ravens, which attack imperiled sage grouse and young tortoises.

Increased raven predation was the primary reason that the Nevada Legislature, in 2015, passed a resolution asking Congress to remove raven protections from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

As for permitting the projects, Bobzien said his office is looking to focus more on land use.

“The way I see our office engaging on these issues is we are going to have more of a land use function, even if it's monitoring the various project proposals and permitting efforts,” he said.

And he added: "There's always going to be friction and difficulty when it comes to permitting.”