Solar Energy Project in Nevada Will Be Biggest in United States

The Department of the Interior approved the $1 billion project on Monday despite concerns for threatened wildlife

A California biologist watches an old male desert tortoise from a distance.
A California biologist watches an old male desert tortoise from a distance following the construction of a solar farm in 2011. Photo by Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

On Monday, the Department of the Interior approved the largest solar farm project in the United States.

The Gemini Solar Project will be built 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas starting in 2021, Associated Press’ Scott Sonner reports. At a cost of $1 billion, the solar farm is projected to produce enough electricity to power 260,000 homes while directly and indirectly creating about 2,000 jobs in the local area. The project will offset about 83,000 cars’ worth of greenhouse emissions. But the project is moving forward despite its impact on local historical sites and opposition from wildlife conservation experts concerned about the impact on local species, including the vulnerable Mojave desert tortoise, per Max Michor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

“It’s an important moment in Nevada history,” Casey Hammond, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management, tells the Associated Press. “Domestic energy production on federal lands remains fundamental to our national security and the achievements of the Trump administration.”

The first phase of the solar farm is expected to cover about 11 square miles of Nevada desert and produce 440 megawatts of electricity for use in the state. A second phase of construction will add the capacity to produce another 250 megawatts for use in Nevada, Arizona or California in 2022. The project will also incorporate a battery storage system, which will enable it to store power for high-use times like the early evening, Jennifer Dlouhy reports for Bloomberg.

But the region where the project will be built is also home to various desert wildlife, including the desert tortoise, which is protected as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The tortoises can grow up to 15 pounds and live to between 50 and 80 years old, and about 200,000 of them are living in the wild. About 300 tortoises will be removed from the area and then reintroduced when the solar farm is completed sometime in 2022.

“We don’t think it [the Gemini Solar Project] will cause the extinction of the desert tortoise, but it is going to be a fairly big nail in the coffin of the species,” Kevin Emmerich, director of Basin and Range Watch, tells the AP. “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.”

Kit foxes and burrowing owls also call the desert landscape home, along with two rare types of milkvetch plants and an array of wildflowers.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Department of the Interior specified that construction should not entirely bulldoze the land where the project is being built. Instead, the departments called for a “hybrid alternative” that involves trimming vegetation and conducting long-term monitoring of the impact on local wildlife, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The Basin and Range Watch is gathering photographs of the solar panel-free landscape before construction starts, however.

The approval process for the Gemini project was delayed in March as officials considered its impact on National Historic Trails, including the Old Spanish Trail, Reuters’ Nichola Groom reported last month. The trails are managed by the National Parks Service and are usually open for highly prepared hikers and history fans to retrace the steps of the traders, missionaries and Native Americans who used the trails in the early 1800s and before.

“Stand where they stood and see a landscape seemingly unchanged,” the National Historic Trails website says; the construction of the solar project could change that claim. The Old Spanish Trail passes through six states: California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, so only a portion would be affected by the Gemini Solar Project.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.