Jennifer Solis

(Nevada Current) Federal land managers auctioned off thousands of acres in Nevada’s Amargosa desert for solar development, resulting in the highest-yielding onshore renewable energy auction in the agency’s history.

Last week the U.S Department of the Interior announced the sale of leases on four highly sought land parcels in the Amargosa Desert totaling 23,675 acres for a record return of $105 million. Together, the land could produce up to 3GW of clean solar energy — enough to power more than 2 million homes.

Utility giant NV Energy placed the winning bid for two leases auctioned in the Amargosa Valley Solar Energy Zone, a designated solar leasing area in Southern Nevada with high solar potential and what the Bureau of Land Management in a 2012 analysis characterized as an area of low resource conflict. The utility company, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, secured 7,226 acres of land across the two parcels for a combined $81.85m.

“This record-breaking auction for solar energy development is further evidence that the demand for clean energy has never been greater. The technological advances, increased interest, cost effectiveness, and tremendous economic potential make these projects a reliable path for diversifying our nation’s energy portfolio,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Both parcels are located in Nye County near the California border. The closest towns to the designated solar zone are Beatty, about 11 miles north, and Amargosa Valley, about 12 miles southeast.

The bureau identified the Amargosa valley as one of 17 nationwide solar energy zones wherein solar energy projects are encouraged.

Two other parcels outside but near the Amargosa Valley solar energy zone were awarded to energy companies under the condition that they submit a right-of-way application within 30 days of the auction and a development plan within 60 days. BLM will review both projects outside the designated solar zone before approving development, according to the agency.

Boulevard Associates, a subsidiary of Florida energy supplier NextEra Energy, won a conditional lease for one 10,129-acre parcel with the high bid of $21 million. The remaining 6,320-acre parcel was awarded on a conditional basis to Leeward Renewable Energy subsidiary Silver Star Solar under a $2.3 million bid.

“This auction is an important next step towards responsible renewable energy development in this area of high interest,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Laura Daniel-Davis.

The BLM is currently processing 74 utility-scale solar, wind and geothermal projects on public lands in the western United States. These projects have the combined potential to add over 37,000 megawatts of renewable energy to the western electric grid. An additional 150 solar and wind development applications are undergoing preliminary reviews.

Last year, the Biden administration announced new steps to accelerate solar energy development on federal land in the West including sharply reducing fees, a move that could further incentivize renewable energy development on Nevada’s vast public lands.

‘Of gravest concern’

Conservationists said their greatest concern about any large-scale development in the Amargosa Desert is the potential for damage to the desert’s fragile watershed.

The Amargosa River runs below ground for much of its 180-mile course, but in the stretches where the river hits the surface, the river supports entire ecosystems of species found nowhere else in the world. The river also passes through the Amargosa Valley Solar Energy Zone, according to an analysis by the BLM.

Federal land managers noted that groundwater drawdown is a major concern for the solar development zone. Connectivity between the groundwater system and the seeps and streams that bleed into Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and Devils Hole supports threatened and endangered species, most notably the Devils Hole pupfish.

“Of gravest concern to our organization is the cumulative impact of these developments on the region’s groundwater resources. This reach of the Mojave Desert known as the Amargosa River watershed sustains exceptionally critical desert wetland and riparian habitats,” said the executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, Mason Veohl.

Overpumping by developers in the central Amargosa Desert caused water levels to decline in Devils Hole, which temporarily reduced habitat of Devils Hole pupfish by 85% in 1972, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report. That same report found that if pumping from Ash Meadows groundwater basin and the central Amargosa Desert continues at current rates, it has the potential to dry up Ash Meadows over the long-term.

“Utility-scale solar does not have a huge annual consumption of water during operation, but construction activities can use thousands of acre-feet of water for a single facility. If BLM is going to develop tens of thousands of acres of solar in this area, it could potentially take tens of thousands of acre feet of water,” said Patrick Donnelly, the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Federal land managers’ approach of “leasing first and analyzing later” could be “a recipe for disaster,” warned Donelly, and may even “counterintuitively slow down the renewable energy transition, if they push forward projects that entail unacceptable impacts.”

One example of a well-balanced clean energy development model is the BLM California’s Desert Renewable Energy and Conservation Plan, a multi-year effort in the California desert which set aside millions of acres for conservation while also allocating hundreds of thousands of acres for solar, said Donnelly.

As for the Amargosa Desert, Donelly argued there’s “no plan for where and how to develop these resources without causing undue damage to ecosystems.”

“Instead of an overarching plan to roll out development in the least impactful ways, it’s a shotgun approach, just leasing and permitting on whatever flat public land seems expeditious,” he continued.

Renewable energy development on Nevada’s public lands is growing rapidly, and so are the conflicts.

Early this year, the Burning Man Project—the nonprofit behind the festival — sued the BLM over its approval of a geothermal exploration project in Gerlach, Nevada. Residents and landowners pushed local lawmakers to revoke a permit for the geothermal  project over fears it would permanently degrade vital hot springs directly adjacent to the project site.

In 2021 a coalition of tribes, conservation groups and rural residents intensified a push for the creation of the Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Clark County after a wind farm developer applied to develop in an area considered sacred to several tribes. Later that same year, the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit against BLM for approving a geothermal energy project near a spring considered sacred to tribes and home to a rare desert toad.

A group of Moapa Valley residents also successfully campaigned against a massive solar project proposed on public lands near the town in 2021. While the project had the support of Gov. Steve Sisolak, it was eventually abandoned after major pushback from locals early in the process.

Voehl, the executive director of the Amargosa Conservancy, warned that “the cumulative impacts of these development projects pose a long-term threat to the watershed that is already stressed as a result of historic overpumping of groundwater.”

Voehl pointed to lithium mining in the Amargosa Desert as their “chief concern at this time.”

Nevada has faced a deluge of proposals for lithium mines in the state, including the Rover Metals’ proposed Let’s Go Lithium project to conduct exploratory drilling on federal land near the boundary of Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge.

“Lithium extraction is an extremely water intensive process, and therefore poses a direct threat to the wildlife and communities of the region who depend on groundwater for survival,” Voehl said. “It is imperative that all proposed developments in this region are subjected to the highest standard of environmental review, and that their cumulative impacts to groundwater resources be robustly analyzed.”