Permitting Issue Delays $1 Billion Nevada Solar Project

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management said it continues to work on issuing a permit for a $1 billion solar power project in Nevada, after already missing two deadlines to move the project forward.

The proposed 690-MW Gemini solar farm in Nevada is one of the country’s largest proposed solar projects. It would be operated by NV Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and is being developed by California-based Arevia Power and Houston, Texas-based private equity firm Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners.

Arevia said it has been hopeful regulators would quickly issue a decision, but an official with the company in a statement April 2 suggested the COVID-19 pandemic might have delayed action.

“In the current circumstances impacting federal government priorities, it would be prudent not to speculate,” Arevia Managing Partner Ricardo Graf said in an email to media. He said he did not expect the delay to impact the project’s qualification for a federal tax credit. “Gemini’s status is not predicated on full-scale construction commencing this year,” he said.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon told Reuters this week the bureau does not have a timeframe for a decision, but she said the agency was moving “expeditiously” to finish its work. NV Energy has said it still expects the project to come online in 2023, its original timeline.

Kristen Saibini, a spokeswoman for NV Energy, told Reuters on Thursday: “The Gemini Solar project is a large, important part of our future renewable portfolio and we look forward to their successful on-time completion.”

Section 106 Permit Needed

NV Energy in December 2019 secured approval from the Public Utilities Commission of Nevada (PUCN) for about 1.20 GW of new solar projects, along with 590 MW of energy storage capacity. Gemini is one of the projects that was approved; the project is expected to be coupled with a 380-MW battery storage system.

NV Energy has been rapidly expanding its solar power portfolio, with several projects planned across Nevada.

The BLM needs to issue a Section 106 permit for the Gemini project. That permit, part of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA), requires federal agencies to consider the effects of a project “on historic properties of projects they carry out, assist, fund, permit, license, or approve throughout the country.” The Section 106 review occurs when a project assisted by the federal government—in this case a project on federal lands—could affect historic properties.

A draft agreement filed between the BLM and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office says the project covers 7,100 acres of federal land near Las Vegas. The draft says the project would have a visual impact on a historic railroad camp on the Moapa River Indian Reservation. It also could impact the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, used by early settlers moving through the area in 1830s to 1860s. The Section 106 review allows public comment on project impacts to historic areas prior to a final decision.

A review of the project originally was expected to be completed by year-end 2019, and then was expected again prior to the end of March. The BLM under the Obama administration had previously rejected the project under an agreement with conservation groups, a deal that protected sensitive desert land from solar and wind power development. The Trump administration in February 2018 indicated it would dismiss that agreement.

Solar Plus Storage

NV Energy previously said the Gemini solar-plus-storage project will cost about $38.44 per megawatt-hour under a 25-year contract. Gemini would mark at least the third time the Trump administration’s BLM has approved a solar power project on federal lands. The agency approved an 80-MW project in Wyoming in June 2018, as well as a 550-MW solar farm near Joshua Tree National Park in California in November 2018.

The BLM released its final environmental impact statement for Gemini in January of this year. At the time, BLM Southern Nevada District Manager Tim Smith in a statement said, “The proposed Gemini Solar 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.”

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

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