‘Is this really green?’ The fight over solar farms in the Mojave Desert

PAHRUMP VALLEY, Nev. —

When some people look at the Mojave Desert, they see a vast expanse of nothing. Shannon Salter, however, sees an ancient Mojave yucca and wispy creosote shrubs, clever kangaroo rats, and slender Foxes all living on top of a hard-packed crust made of rock and lichen over thousands of years.

“There’s this idea that it’s a wasteland,” Salter said. It’s an amazing, vibrant thing. We are turning it into a wasteland with all of our antics.”

In mid-October, Salter, a 37-year-old poet and writing teacher, moved into a campsite in the Pahrump Valley — just east of the California border in southern Nevada — to protest a solar project that she and other activists argue will irreparably damage the fragile desert ecosystem.

A woman in a hat and blue shirt stands before a camper whose contents include a stove and pan and kitchen supplies

Shannon Salter, 37, camps in protest near the site of the Yellow Pine solar project in Nevada’s Pahrump Valley. She lives in a wooden camper.

(Meg Bernhard/For The Times )

Yellow Pine, a 3,000-acre solar farm, will provide 500 megawatts of electricity to 100,000 homes in California.

It’s the sort of renewable energy project that scientists and policymakers gathering this week in Glasgow, Scotland, for the United Nations climate conference, or COP26, say is needed on a massive scale to wean the world off fossil fuels and stave off the worst effects of global warming. But even clean energy (from wind to solar and hydropower) is not always clean.

More than 100,000 yucca and other plants will be destroyed during construction of Yellow Pine. This year, scientists relocated more than 100 federally protected desert tortoises from the site in preparation for construction, but about 30 of those have died, possibly eaten by badgers. Salter asked, “Is this really how we want to do it?” “Is this really green?”

Other environmentalists believe more can be done to minimize the damage from solar farms, but accept some ill effects as the price of reducing carbon emissions.

” We try to be pragmatic,” Shayna Steingard said, a policy analyst for Defenders of Wildlife. This is a national conservation organization that protects native animals and plants. “We know that we have to meet our renewable energy goals and that is going to rely a lot on solar energy at the utility scale, that we will need to develop in the desert.”

Solar developers have long viewed the Mojave as prime real estate because of its sparse population and abundant sunshine. Two-thirds of Nevada — including the Yellow Pine site — is public land overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management, offering one-stop shopping for massive swaths of land.

Construction at the Yellow Pine site is expected to start in coming months and be completed by the end of next year. It is part of a new generation of facilities that feature not only photovoltaic solar panels but also lithium-ion battery storage that enables delivery of electricity at night.

The developer, NextEra Energy Resources, a renewable energy company based in Florida, says the project will create 350 jobs during construction and generate $46 million in tax revenue for Nevada’s Clark County over 30 years. A spokesperson for NextEra Energy Resources, Bryan Garner, stated that the company was working closely with federal and state agencies to minimize the environmental impact of the project.

Plants will be mowed but not completely razed in hopes that they will eventually grow back.

Steven Grodsky, a scientist with the United States Geological Survey, said more research is needed to understand the effects of solar development on desert ecosystems.

“We’re in the midst of this rapid and necessary energy transition, but we don’t have a clear path forward in terms of how to do it sustainably,” he said. Grodsky and other federal researchers found a decline in biodiversity in studies at the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, Nipton, Calif. Cacti and yucca never grew back, the population of moths and other non-bee pollinators fell, and thousands of birds die each year from collisions or immolation as they chase insects around the facility.

Instead of building in the desert, some conservationists advocate for what’s known as distributed solar — smaller solar panels built on top of roofs and parking lots in urban areas, places where wildlife has already been disturbed. However, experts agree that such a patchwork approach to climate change is inefficient and impractical. The Department of Energy recommends erecting solar panels in both cities and rural areas.

“They have generally concluded in order to meet the renewable energy requirements that the country has over the next 30 years we need to do both,” said Heidi Hartmann, an environmental scientist with the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois who has worked with federal agencies to determine the best locations for solar farms.

Lawmakers across the nation have unveiled ambitious plans for renewable energy. In September, the Biden administration issued a plan that would see the country generating 45% of its electricity from solar panels by 2050.

The Nevada Legislature passed a bill in 2019 that requires the state to generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030 — nearly doubling their current share. According to a spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management,

Nine solar panels are already in operation on federal land in Nevada. There are also several more in the pipeline. Residents in the Moapa Valley opposed the idea of a large-scale solar farm, and the plan was abandoned.

Salter is not opposed to the solar industry. She just doesn’t want it in the desert — a place she quickly came to love after moving from Irvine to Nevada about a decade ago.

Her first environmental protests were against hydraulic drilling. She also opposed a proposal to build wind turbines in the vicinity of Joshua trees.

She now walks a mile each morning from her campsite to the Yellow Pine construction area.

” I just want to be in a position to see all that’s happening around me,” she stated. “Everyday I’m going there. I’m getting to know the valley better.”

A barbed-wire fence marks the boundary of the future solar field. Developers were testing the soil’s stability in order to decide where they would begin drilling.

Salter walked toward a cluster of trucks and greeted two workers. She pointed to a square hole in the fence and explained that it had a slab of wood beneath.

“They’re for the birds,” replied a woman wearing a hard hat who was there to make sure the developers followed federal guidelines for protecting wildlife. “So they don’t get stuck to the fence.”

Returning to her campsite, Salter ran into Ron Callison, a Pahrump resident whom she’d met the week before. He made cookies from mesquite flour for Salter and promised to camp with her the next night.

“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the country says, I’ve been across Nevada, there’s nothing out there,” Callison said. “Someone in Connecticut said that there are just lots of dried up bushels. They just happen to be hundreds of years old.”

Salter nodded.

She knows that the Yellow Pine Project is almost certain to be a lost cause. Although there are occasional protests, they usually only involve a handful of people. It’s been over a year since Basin and Range Watch, a Nevada conservation group, filed a petition to stop construction at the Bureau of Land Management.

A woman in a hat and blue top and khaki pants stands next to a table with a solar panel

Shannon Salter sets up a 100-watt solar panel on a folding table to generate her own electricity for charging her laptop and cellphone for her online tutoring jobs.

(Meg Bernhard / For The Times)

Still, Salter said she plans to camp out as long as construction lasts, changing campsites every couple of weeks to stay in compliance with the rules about living on federal public land. Her accommodations are simple: a camper made of wood, hauled by friends and equipped with a bed and a sleeping bag. To generate her own electricity — which she needs to charge her laptop and cellphone for her online tutoring jobs — she set up a 100-watt solar panel on a folding table.

To shower, she drives her Toyota 30 miles to Tecopa, Calif., where there are natural hot springs, and for meals she uses a propane stove. In her opinion, leaving would be like giving up.

Four other solar development projects are currently awaiting federal approval in the Pahrump Valley. They are all located within a day’s walking distance of Salter camp.

Bernhard is a special correspondent.

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