Park Service Protests Big Solar Expansion in Nevada Desert
National Parks Will Suffer from Water Withdrawals, Pollution and Habitat Loss
Washington, DC — The National Park Service is sounding an alarm about plans for scores of big solar power plants in Southern Nevada, according to an inter-agency memo posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). NPS predicts harm to national parks in the region due to water scarcity, habitat disturbance, air pollution, sound pollution and light pollution lightening night skies.
The February 9, 2009 memo from NPS Pacific Regional Director Jon Jarvis to the Acting Nevada U.S. Bureau of Land Management Director Amy Leuders details concerns about 63 utility-scale solar projects slated for BLM lands in southern Nevada. Jarvis cites potential negative impacts for Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Mojave National Preserve, and the Devils Hole section of Death Valley National Park.
Above all, Jarvis stressed the lack of water to operate the solar facilities:
“The NPS asserts that it is not in the public interest for BLM to approve plans of development for water-cooled solar energy projects in the arid basins of southern Nevada, some of which are already over-appropriated, where there may be no reasonable expectation of acquiring new water rights in some basins, and where transference of existing points of diversion may be heavily constrained for some basins.”
“Except for the sun, there is little that will be ‘green’ about mega-solar plants in the desert,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that a key dilemma is that the places of greatest solar potential are also the most arid. “There is not enough water in the desert to run utility-scale water-cooled solar plants.”
Concerns about the negative impacts of big solar facilities and the transmission corridors they require to deliver power to market has led U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) to propose the creation of a new national monument covering more than a half-million Mojave Desert acres to exclude BLM solar leases.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has promised to assemble a comprehensive energy plan that will presumably minimize these inter-agency conflicts. In February, Secretary Salazar suspended BLM oil and gas lease sales in Utah following protests from NPS about negative effects on nearby national parks.
“A comprehensive energy plan is needed but cannot depend solely on public lands,” added Ruch. “America’s deserts should not become national sacrifice zones for energy farms.”
PEER is urging alternative approaches such as rooftop solar installations. Southern California has vast areas of open roofs that do not require huge new transmission corridors. In addition, there are large private lands, such as degraded cotton and alfalfa farms, that have little current ecological value. On public lands, BLM should limit “Big Solar” power-plants to desert areas that have already been despoiled, such as toxic waste sites and abandoned mines. Co-locating solar plants with already compromised lands not only minimizes loss of wild habitat but also reduces the maintenance burden on BLM of keeping these damaged lands in exclusion.