The administration of US President Donald Trump on Monday announced final approval of the largest solar energy project in the US and one of the biggest in the world, despite objections from conservationists who have said that it would destroy hundreds of hectares of habitat critical to the survival of the threatened Mojave Desert tortoise in Nevada.
The US$1 billion Gemini solar and battery storage project about 48km northeast of Las Vegas is expected to produce 690 megawatts (MW) of electricity — enough to power 260,000 households — and annually offset the greenhouse emissions of about 83,000 road vehicles.
It would create about 2,000 direct and indirect jobs, and inject an estimated US$712.5 million into the economy as the nation tries to recover from a downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, US Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said.
“As our economy rebounds from the invisible enemy, President Trump is working to make the United States stronger than ever before,” Bernhardt said on Monday. “Our economic resurgence will rely on getting America back to work and this project delivers on that objective.”
The first phase of the project covering about 28km2 of federal land is expected to be completed next year with 440MW of solar capacity for use in Nevada.
Another 250MW of generating capacity would be added in the second phase, with the power sold in Nevada or exported to Arizona and California in 2022.
The joint venture by Australia’s Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners and California-based Arevia Power is part of an integrated resource plan the Nevada Public Utilities Commission last year approved for NV Energy, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett and is Nevada’s largest utility.
Coupled with a 380MW AC battery storage system, it would be one of the first in Nevada to include batteries to enable power delivery after the sun goes down.
“The solar industry is resilient and a project like this one will bring jobs and private investment to the state when we need it most,” said Abigail Ross Hopper, president and CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association.
Environmental groups, including Basin and Range Watch, and the Western Watersheds Project, have been trying unsuccessfully for years to persuade the US Bureau of Land Management to build the project 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,” Basin and Range Watch director Kevin Emmerich said.
“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,” he said in an interview on Monday.
In addition to the tortoise, the site is home to two types of rare milkvetch plants, kit foxes, burrowing owls and wildflowers, Western Watersheds Project biologist Laura Cunningham said.
“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,” she said.
Bernhardt acknowledged in the record of decision he signed on Friday last week that the project would adversely affect tortoise habitat, but “on balance, the benefits associated with large-scale renewable energy production and battery storage capacity outweigh the impacts to the desert tortoise.”
The project would create as many as 900 construction jobs at its peak, with 19 permanent workers at the site, and support an additional 1,100 jobs in the local community, he said.
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