February 11, 2009

Highway 95 solar projects on hold

Studies will be conducted prior to any development

Pahrump Valley Times

A map of the solar energy projects filed for Southern Nye County. The checkerboards indicate overlapping applications for the same land.

There's been an almost daily spiel of propaganda about the need for renewable energy and reducing our dependence of foreign oil emanating from politicians ranging from U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to Gov. Jim Gibbons.

But it may be a few years yet before projects actually start being developed in Southern Nevada, at least on public land.

That was the verdict after a field tour by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Resource Advisory Council last Thursday of solar energy sites in Amargosa Valley.

BLM Pahrump Field Office Manager Patrick Putnam said there have been approximately 35 applications for solar energy projects comprising 250,000 acres just in the southern BLM district.

BLM Realty Specialist Wendy Seley said of 21 to 24 applications for land just in the Amargosa Valley, about 14 applicants have started the initial process, paying the BLM for the cost recovery process, which pays for all the consultants and is a first step for requesting BLM right-of-way.

The BLM decided against issuing a moratorium on applications for solar energy projects throughout the western states last summer, while a programmatic environmental impact statement is prepared. Work on the statement began last May, a draft is expected this summer, and a final EIS by summer 2010.

After the moratorium was lifted, numerous companies submitted applications for solar energy projects, some competing for the same piece of land, Seley said.

Some applications are being withdrawn as companies learn about the costs and requirements, she said, There were 71 applications submitted for solar projects statewide, which has since dropped to 68, she said.

The right-of-way application includes stipulations on road construction, removal of vegetation, disturbing biological and cultural resources, as well as site reclamation. A plan of development for construction and operation of a solar facility must be completed within 90 days of receiving the cost recovery application, Seley said.

Right now, six plans of development have been forwarded to the state BLM office in Reno for an engineering review.

The BLM is asking for a rental fee for the public lands calculating the highest and best use of the land. Seley said they're using the agricultural value of the acreage as a guide.

A bond will be required, similar to what's required for mining companies, for land reclamation once the project is over. It will include removing solar collectors as well as reclaiming access roads.

"A lot of companies are asking for a lot of acreage. This is something new to the BLM," Seley said.

The right-of-way is only going to be issued for the footprint of the actual solar facilities, she said.

"If they want 30,000 acres, one thing they've got to remember -- they're going to be paying rent on those 30,000 acres," Seley said.

BLM Natural Resource Specialist Jayson Barangan said companies will also be paying desert tortoise mitigation fees of $753 per acre.

Realty specialist Mark Chandler said a company like Cogentrix Solar Services, which had requested 30,000 acres of right-of-way, has scaled back that request to 3,000 acres due to the cost. Chandler said companies like to locate a site next to existing infrastructure like gas lines, power lines and telephone lines.

"You can't just hold 30,000 acres in reserve. You have to develop it," Chandler said.

Seley said companies will also have to apply for an interconnection agreement to sell power on the market and a power purchase agreement with companies like NV Energy and Valley Electric Association. Seley said from discussions she had with the power industry on the California side, it could take two to five years to execute those power purchase agreements.

Those agreements are also not cheap. Chandler said an interconnection agreement can cost a company $250,000 all by itself.

An application to install a 500-kilovolt power line 347 miles long that will connect Northern and Southern Nevada from Yerington to Jean is being protested in court by environmental groups, BLM's Resource Advisory Council was told. That power line could be tapped into for solar energy projects in the Amargosa Valley area.

Putnam said the majority of solar projects up for engineering review now use wet-cooled technology, which uses more water to cool the turbines. The use of wet-cooled technology could be a limiting factor to how many projects get off the ground, he said.

The more water efficient process, the dry cooling technology, requires a larger footprint, Chandler said.

Seley said companies would have to show they have water rights, and will drill a well or pipe the water to the site.

"With 250,000 acres, how are you going to deal with cumulative impacts?" RAC Chairman John Hiatt asked.

"I think that is going to be a crucial issue," Putnam replied. He referred to all the applications filed in a row along Highway 95 from Lathrop Wells to Beatty, except for the US Ecology site.

Seley said the BLM can issue a right-of-way for up to 30 years.

Archeologist Kathleen Sprowl said the BLM hasn't conducted many archeological surveys in Nye County except for proposed power lines and off-road races.

"The solar projects are covering massive acres in Amargosa Valley, and up to this point in time not much has been done in the Pahrump district culturally because there haven't been many developments out here," Sprowl said. "We will have a large area inventoried to know what kind of historic or prehistoric activities were happening out here. For each solar project, we are going to be requiring that the entire area they ask to be leased is inventoried."

Sprowl said there are two historic railroad systems that may go through some lease sites, like the Las Vegas and Tonopah Railroad and the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. Most stagecoach roads have already lost their integrity, she said.

BLM natural resource specialist Jayson Barangan outlined the unique situation at Big Dune, in the western Amargosa Valley, which is surrounded by applications for solar power. An area of critical environmental concern has been designated for 2,000 acres around Big Dune, mostly targeting the periphery around the dune which is home to four species of beetle found nowhere else, he said.

Barangan said the BLM is developing a resource recreation area management plan to address the environmental concerns and the popular off-highway use around the dune.

Barangan said the EIS will have to examine whether solar energy projects planned around Big Dune will affect the biological resources.

So how come Acciona Energy was able to build a solar power plant so quickly in El Dorado Canyon near Boulder City and another system went up already on Nellis Air Force Base?

Hiatt said Acciona Energy is using property belonging to the town of Boulder City. The Nellis project was built on military land.