A National Park Service official has warned the Bureau of Land Management that approving dozens of solar power plants in southern Nevada could dramatically impact water supplies across the arid region.
An estimated 63 large-scale solar projects are proposed for BLM lands in the region, and the plants are expected to use a large amount of groundwater to cool and wash solar panels, according to the Feb. 5 memorandum sent by Jon Jarvis, director of the Park Service's Pacific West Region, to BLM's associate state director in Nevada.
Jarvis also wrote that the Park Service is concerned that the projects could produce air and light pollution, generate noise and destroy wildlife habitat near three NPS properties: the Devils Hole section of Death Valley National Park, the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and the Mojave National Preserve.
"In cases where plans of development have been submitted, the vast majority of these projects propose to use utility-scale, concentrating solar power technologies" that "can be expected to consume larger amounts of water" for cooling than other technologies, Jarvis wrote.
"In arid settings, the increased water demand from concentrating solar energy systems employing water-cooled technology could strain limited water resources already under development pressure from urbanization, irrigation expansion, commercial interests and mining," he wrote.
As such, the proposed solar plants "potentially face several water-rights related obstacles in obtaining the necessary water for their projects."
BLM officials did not publicly respond to the issues raised in the memo, although Linda Resseguie, a BLM project manager in Washington, said there is "great sensitivity" within the agency to concerns over solar power plant siting.
The bureau is conducting a programmatic environmental impact statement to be released this fall that will gauge the effects of proposed solar power development on Nevada and five other Western states, and discuss management strategies for how best to address the issue.
Avoiding sensitive lands
Environmental groups welcomed the Jarvis memo, which was disseminated this week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Critics say they hope the memo will prompt the Interior Department to develop an overarching plan for siting renewable energy projects like solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal plants in environmentally sensitive areas.
"We think the greater significance has to do with the fact that the Interior Department has no plan for solar energy development on public lands," said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.
The Nevada controversy highlights the emerging conflict between the Obama administration's plans to greatly expand the use of renewable energy and the concerns of those who fear solar arrays, wind farms and geothermal plants could disrupt or destroy wildlife habitat and soak up precious water supplies in the arid West.
While environmentalists say they support the expansion of alternative energy, some groups have raised objections to large solar arrays and wind farms that would displace endangered animals and plants and damage their habitats. They also have raised concerns about environmental damage caused by the expected build out of thousands of miles of new transmission lines necessary to bring the electricity from remote regions to power-hungry customers.
The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes massive federal incentives and tax breaks to encourage the build out of a new power grid and associated infrastructure for renewable energy development.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that developers will build dozens of wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal plants over the next four years with an estimated 7,574 megawatts of electricity generation capacity -- enough to power roughly 6 million homes for a year.
Many of the projects will be built on public land in the West.
Kim Delfino, California program director for Defenders of Wildlife, said her group welcomes the renewable energy investment as long as projects are sited in areas that have already been disturbed. Suitable sites could include the more than 250,000 abandoned mines on public lands across the West, she said
BLM, the Forest Service and other agencies have indicated they are studying such proposals, including locating renewable energy projects on EPA-designated brownfields.
"The degraded places are probably just as hot, and probably get just as much sunlight, as the pristine places," PEER's Ruch said. "As long as you're in the region the exact locations should not matter much."
Targeting the West
Federal lands currently support an estimated 20 wind farms, solar arrays and geothermal energy plants across 5,000 acres managed by BLM and the Forest Service. An additional three renewable energy plants have been approved for 3,000 acres of public land in Arizona, California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming. In total, the existing and approved renewable energy projects promise 577 megawatts of capacity -- enough to power 460,000 homes (Land Letter, Feb. 5, 2009).
But that number could swell dramatically over the next few years, as BLM and the Forest Service work through an estimated 400 applications for new wind and solar projects for federal land. If approved, those projects would cover 2.3 million acres in seven Western states and generate an estimated 70,000 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power more than 50 million homes.
"I think like many others, the BLM has been caught off guard by the sheer volume and intensity of what's happening," Delfino said.
Meanwhile, energy companies have targeted the expansive Mojave Desert on the Nevada-California border as an emerging hub of solar energy development.
The area includes millions of acres of undeveloped, federally managed land that receives high solar intensity year-round. But the Mojave Desert is also home to a wide array of wildlife, including desert tortoises and rare plants like the Rusby's desert-mallow, the cave evening primrose and the Mojave milkweed, said Sid Silliman, energy chairman for the Sierra Club's San Gorgonio Chapter based in Riverside, Calif.
"I think sometimes the perception is the desert is barren, and that's just not true," Silliman said. "It's a very fragile environment, very diverse."
The potential loss of such habitat is driving new concerns about a proposed solar array for San Bernardino County near the Mojave National Preserve -- one of the three NPS sites Jarvis said could be at risk from large-scale solar projects.
The Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System project, as proposed by Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource Energy Inc., would cover 4,065 acres and produce enough electricity to power nearly 200,000 homes.
The plant would use an air-cooled system that requires less water, according to officials familiar with the proposal. But it is one of more than 100 energy projects proposed for the Mojave region, most of them solar projects. Just east of the Ivanpah site is another proposed 4,000-acre solar plant, Delfino said.
"It's great there's interest in developing renewable energy," she said. "We just need to take a deep breath and think more about what we're doing and how best to do it."
Scott Streater is a freelance journalist based in Colorado Springs, Colo.