Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The battle for climate change in the Mojave Desert

When some people look at the Mojave Desert, they see a vast expanse of emptiness. But Shannon Salter sees ancient Mojave yuccas and slender creosote bushes, shrewd kangaroo rats and slender foxes living on the hard bark of rocks and lichens that have formed over thousands of years.

“It is believed that this is a wasteland,” Salter said. “No, this is a bright, amazing thing. We turn it into a wasteland with all our antics. “

In mid-October, Salter, a 37-year-old poet and writing teacher, moved to a campground in the Pahrump Valley – east of the California border in southern Nevada – to protest a solar project that she and other activists believe is irreparable. damage the fragile desert ecosystem.

Shannon Salter, 37, sets up a camp in protest near the construction site of the Yellow Pine solar power plant in Nevada’s Pahrump Valley. She lives in a wooden mobile home.

(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 a renewable energy project of sorts that scientists and policymakers will gather this week in Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations Climate Conference or COP26, say it is needed on a massive scale to wean the world off fossil fuels and prevent the worst effects of global warming. …

But even clean energy, from wind to solar to hydropower, is not entirely clean.

During the construction of Yellow Pine, over 100,000 yucca and other plants will be destroyed. This year, scientists relocated more than 100 state-protected desert turtles from the site in preparation for construction, but about 30 of them died, possibly eaten by badgers.

“Do we really want that?” Salter said. “Is it really green?”

Other environmentalists believe more can be done to minimize the damage from solar farms, but accept some of the detrimental effects as a price to pay for cutting carbon emissions.

“We’re trying to be really pragmatic,” said Shayna Steingard, a political analyst with Defenders of Wildlife, a national conservation group that works to protect native animals and plants. “We know we have to meet our renewable energy targets, and that will rely heavily on solar power at a utility scale that we will need to develop in the desert.”

Solar developers have long viewed the Mojave as a prime property due to its sparse population and abundant sunshine. Two-thirds of Nevada, including Yellow The Pine Parcel is public land overseen by the Federal Bureau of Land Management, offering one-stop purchases for huge parcels of land.

Construction on the Yellow Pine site is expected to begin in the coming months and be completed by the end of next year. It is part of a new generation of facilities that are equipped not only with photovoltaic solar panels, but also with lithium-ion batteries, which allow electricity to be supplied 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 Clark County, Nevada, over 30 years.

“The company works closely with state and federal agencies and has taken significant steps in site selection and design to minimize the overall environmental impact of the project,” Brian Garner, a company spokesman, wrote in a statement.

Plants will be mowed but not completely destroyed in the hope that they will eventually grow back.

Stephen Grodsky, a scientist with the US Geological Survey, said more research is needed to understand the impact of solar development on desert ecosystems.

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“We are in the midst of this fast and necessary energy transition, but we do not have a clear path forward in terms of how to do this sustainably,” he said.

In studies of the Iwanpa solar power plant in Nipton, California, Grodsky and other federal researchers found declining biodiversity. Cacti and yucca have no longer grown, populations of moths and other non-bee pollinators have declined, and thousands of birds die each year from collisions or sacrifices as they chase insects around the property.

Instead of building in the desert, some conservationists are advocating so-called distributed solar panels – smaller solar panels built on rooftops and parking lots in urban areas, places where wildlife has already been disturbed.

But many experts say this patchwork approach is impractical and insufficient given the threat of climate change. The Department of Energy recommends installing solar panels in both urban and rural areas.

“Overall, they concluded that to meet the country’s renewable energy needs over the next 30 years, we need to accomplish both,” said Heidi Hartmann, an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois who worked with federal agencies are over to determine the best locations for solar farms.

Lawmakers across the country have unveiled ambitious plans for renewable energy. In September, the Biden administration released a plan that says the country will generate 45% of its electricity from solar panels by 2050.

The Nevada Legislature passed legislation in 2019 requiring the state to generate half of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, nearly doubling its current share.

According to a spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management, nine solar installations are already operating on federal land in Nevada, and several more are under development. In the summer, a plan to create the largest solar farm in the state was canceled after residents of the Moapa Valley said the eyesore would harm tourism.

Salter doesn’t mind solar energy. She just doesn’t want it in the desert – a place she quickly fell in love with after moving from Irvine. to Nevada about ten years ago.

Her first environmental protests were against hydraulic fracturing. She also fought a proposal to install wind turbines near the Joshua tree forest.

She now walks about a mile every morning from her camp to the Yellow Pine construction site.

“I just want to see what’s going on all the time,” she said. “I go there every day. I get to know the valley better. “

A barbed wire fence marks the border of the future solar field. On a recent morning, the developers tested the stability of the soil to determine where they would start drilling.

Salter walked over to a group of trucks and greeted two workers. “What is it?” she asked, pointing to a square hole in the fence with a wooden slab underneath.

“They’re for the birds,” replied the woman in the hard hat, who had to make sure the developers were complying with federal wildlife regulations. “So they don’t stick to the fence.”

Back at her camp, Salter ran into Ron Callison, a Pahrump resident she had met the week before. He gave her a mesquite cookie and told her that he would go to camp with her for the night.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of the nation’s population says, ‘I’ve been to Nevada, there’s nothing there,’ Callison said. “Someone in Connecticut says it’s just a lot of dead bushes. They are just hundreds of years old. “

Salter nodded.

She realizes that killing Project Yellow Pine is almost certainly hopeless. There are still occasional protests, usually no more than a few dozen people. But it’s been a year since the Bureau of Land Administration rejected a petition from the Nevada conservation group Basin and Range Watch to block construction.

A woman in a hat, blue top and khaki pants stands at a table with a solar panel.

Shannon Salter installs a 100-watt solar panel on a folding table to generate its own electricity to charge her laptop and mobile phone for her online tutoring.

(Meg Bernhard / for The Times)

However, Salter said she plans to camp as long as construction continues, changing campsites every couple of weeks to comply with federal state land regulations.

She does not have much housing: friends bring a wooden camper on a truck, equipped with a mattress and a thick sleeping bag. To generate her own electricity, which she needs to charge her laptop and mobile phone for online tutoring, she installed a 100-watt solar panel on a folding table.

To shower, she drives her Toyota 30 miles to Tecopa, California, which has natural hot springs and uses a propane stove to eat.

In her opinion, leaving would mean giving up, and the problem did not go away.

Four other solar projects are awaiting federal approval in the Pahrump Valley, all within a day’s walk of Camp Salter.

Bernhard is a special correspondent.

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