Southern Nevada biologist fears desert tortoises will pay the price for solar project
by Kelsey Thomas
LAS VEGAS (KSNV) — A proposed solar project north of Las Vegas could be a new source of power for our homes.
If the Gemini Solar Project is approved, the solar plant would sit on federal land near Interstate 15 and the Valley of Fire.
It is wild, open land where a car is hard to come by and the heat is hard to escape in the middle of July.
“It is a beautiful desert area and it is on a scenic route on the way to Valley of Fire State Park,” said Laura Cunningham, a biologist and founder of Basin and Range Watch, a non-profit organization in Southern Nevada working to conserve the Mojave Desert.
She said the open desert area is home to a desert tortoise habitat and a proposed solar plant that would be on more than 7,000 acres.
« My first thought was, ‘Oh no, not another one,' » said Cunningham.
Cunningham wants to make it clear, she supports clean energy but is worried about the four-legged desert treasures that live in the area.
“Places that have already been bulldozed, we support solar projects there. As well as on rooftops and over parking lots,” said Cunningham. “A lot of the baby juvenile tortoises will die and the adults will have to be dug up one at a time out of their burrows and then moved,” she continued.
John Asselin is a Public Affairs Specialist with the Bureau of Land Management.
He said there is no construction date because the project is not a done deal. Simply put, it is a proposal.
“This is just the beginning,” he said.
According to Asselin, the BLM is looking to balance conservation and growth.
“It is a very involved process. We make sure the ‘i’s’ are dotted and ‘t’s’ are crossed when we go through this,” explained Asselin.
He encourages the public to comment on the proposal.
“We are looking for input from the public, why is this a good area and why is this not a good area,” he noted.
Arevia is the power company behind the proposed project.
In a statement, the company told News 3, “Arevia has been in contact with the appropriate federal agencies for some time now and will help to address any concerns regarding desert tortoise as a part of the project’s environmental review.”
According to a statement from Investment group Quinbrook, Gemini would be one of the largest solar projects in Nevada, with a combined capacity of 690 megawatts and 7,100 acres of solar panels, along with the option to include batteries.
The first phase of the project would connect with NV Energy’s Crystal Substation and provide power for the local grid, the investment group says.
The second phase would be able to send power to customers in Nevada, Arizona, and California.
« Gemini is a uniquely positioned project in close proximity to both Las Vegas and export connections to California and Arizona, » Jeff Hunter, senior managing director at Quinbrook, said in a statement. « Solar energy is on the rise in Nevada and is now being offered at historic low prices which is great news for retail consumers and local industry. »
As for Cunningham, she is already preparing to watch more of the desert and the tortoises she loves, slowly disappear.
“It is really going to scar the landscape a lot. The tortoise may go extinct at this rate,” said Cunningham.
BLM officials say they are accepting public comment on the Gemini project through the end of August.