Feds Back Construction of Largest U.S. Solar Farm

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Dec. 30 released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Gemini solar project, a planned 7,100-acre installation outside Las Vegas, Nevada, with a proposed generation capacity of 690 MW. The $1 billion project would be the largest U.S. solar farm in terms of generation, and includes at least 380 MW of energy storage capacity using lithium-ion batteries.

The largest currently operating solar farm in the U.S. is the 579-MW Solar Star installation in California, which came online in 2015 and at the time was the largest solar array in the world. The Pavagada Solar Park in India, which became operational in its entirety on Dec. 17, 2019, is now the world’s largest solar farm with generation capacity of 2,050 MW. The facility covers about 13,000 acres in the Tumakuru district of Karnataka.

The Gemini project would serve customers of NV Energy, Nevada’s largest utility. The project requires approval from the BLM because it would be built on federal land. The agency in its EIS said the federal government is likely to approve the project after a final round of public comments over the next three months. Construction could start by the end of this year.

The project is being developed by Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners, a global investment management company specializing in renewable energy, with U.S. headquarters in Houston, Texas, and Arevia Power, a solar power development company based in Redwood City, California. The project, if approved as expected, could be operational by year-end 2023. It will be located along Interstate 15 about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in proximity to two other solar farms already operating on the other side of the highway.

Quinbrook co-founder David Scaysbrook in a December news release said the Gemini project “will demonstrate the ability to couple solar PV technology with battery storage to capture and use Nevada’s abundant renewable solar resource to deliver low cost power to NV Energy’s customers and keep the lights on long after the sun has set. We believe Nevada is an ideal location for a project of this magnitude.”

More Than Two Dozen Solar Farms on Federal Land

The Gemini project would join more than two dozen other solar farms approved by federal officials on BLM land since 2010, when the agency approved its first solar project. That includes the Dodge Flat Solar Energy Center approved last year, part of NV Energy’s latest Integrated Resource Plan.

Tim Smith, BLM district manager for southern Nevada, in a news release said the Gemini project “would represent a significant increase in renewable energy capacity for Nevada and the West. The BLM actively supports the Department of the Interior’s America First Energy Plan, an ‘all of the above’ strategy which supports energy development on public lands.”

NV Energy has said it will pay an average of $38.44 per megawatt-hour for the combined output of the solar panels and batteries at the Gemini project under a 25-year contract. Doug Cannon, NV Energy’s president and CEO, in a news release said Gemini and two other solar-plus-storage projects, “allows us to extend the benefits of renewable energy to times when the sun is not shining.” Cannon, after the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada approved power purchase agreements for Gemini and the other projects, said, “[This] decision brings the environmental and price benefits of low-cost solar energy to our customers. We are proud to be delivering a renewable energy vision to our customers that also supports Nevada’s economic and sustainability goals.”

Renewable Energy Goal

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak in April 2019 signed into law a bill that requires utilities operating in the state to get half of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The state has a goal of 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2050 and has become a leader in renewable energy and storage deployments. NV Energy, which is owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Energy, has estimated about a quarter of its electricity came from renewables in 2018.

Environmental groups have expressed concerns about renewable energy projects located in the deserts of the southwestern U.S., saying they could disrupt natural ecosystems and have a negative impact on the landscape. Those groups, including the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the National Parks Conservation Association, have said in comments to BLM that the agency’s own environmental analysis estimates the project’s construction and operation could result in the deaths of up to 215 adult desert tortoises.

“There is no justification for this project that outweighs the importance of the desert tortoise, its habitat and BLM’s obligations to use its full authority to take actions that will contribute to the recovery of this threatened species,” Jeff Aardahl, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife, wrote in a September comment letter to BLM.

In a written statement addressing the development of energy projects on public lands, BLM spokesman Jeff Krauss said the agency “supports an all-of-the-above energy approach, which includes oil and gas, coal, strategic minerals, and renewable energy resources such as wind, geothermal and solar—all of which may be developed on public lands and subject to free markets.”

Darrell Proctor is a POWER associate editor (@DarrellProctor1, @POWERmagazine).