The U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday signed off on Nevada’s Gemini Solar Project, which could be the largest U.S. solar plant once constructed.
Several weeks ago, the 690-megawatt project was awaiting one permit and another review under the U.S. Clean Water Act. The Bureau of Land Management, part of the DOI that oversees public lands, did not respond to request for comment on the status of those reviews but announced Monday it has signed a record of decision on the project, indicating its approval.
In addition to topping the list as the largest solar project in the U.S., Gemini includes 380 megawatts of battery storage, part of a trend of mega-solar projects coming with significant storage attached. The project is being developed by Arevia Power, a California-based company run by SunEdison alums, and investment manager Quinbrook Infrastructure Partners.
The project will serve NV Energy, part of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate, as the utility works to meet Nevada's state requirement for 50 percent renewables by 2030 and 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The power would feed Las Vegas and potentially additional areas in Southern California.
The federal government framed its approval as a way to strengthen the U.S. economy amid the coronavirus pandemic. “This action is about getting Americans back to work, strengthening communities and promoting investment in American energy,” said Casey Hammond, principal deputy assistant secretary at the DOI, in a statement.
In early April, the U.S. unemployment rate neared 15 percent, though officials have warned it is likely much higher. The Gemini project is expected to create a peak of 900 construction jobs and support an additional 1,100 jobs in the area during its construction. On Monday, DOI said the project could be complete in 2022. In April, Arevia said the project was on track despite COVID-19.
The project would become the eighth-largest solar plant in the world, according to the DOI's statement.
Trump administration's deregulatory efforts
The region where Arevia plans to build Gemini has become a hotly contested area for energy development. Since coming to power, the Trump administration has worked to loosen restrictions governing energy development on public lands. In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management began a review of the Obama-era Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which that administration designed as a way to accelerate renewables development in approved areas while protecting wide swaths of public land in the western U.S.
Some clean energy groups have argued that the Obama administration's plan did not set aside enough area for renewables development in an area of the U.S. with ample sun and vast areas of unused land. But changes to the plan, alongside the Trump administration's other bids to broaden energy development on federal lands, could open protected areas not just to renewables but also to oil and gas operations — a shift that environmentalists say amounts to a devil’s bargain.
The Gemini project, which would offset 385,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide or the greenhouse gas emissions of about 83,000 cars, hasn’t dodged the controversy. Located in the Nevada desert, the Gemini site overlaps with habitat of endangered or threatened species including the desert tortoise, kit fox and burrowing owl. During construction of the project, the government plans to move some desert tortoises before returning them back to the area once construction is complete, in what amounts to a “big experiment,” as one employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told Bloomberg.
Ultimately, DOI determined environmental concerns should not derail the project.
The emphasis on “American energy” from DOI’s Hammond, though a common sentiment from the Trump administration, has been pursued with irregularity when it comes to renewables. While investigating possible changes to the desert conservation plan and easing the way for offshore oil and gas drilling, the administration has also impeded offshore wind development, extending an environmental review of the Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts. The move caused Massachusetts Representative Joe Kennedy III to decry the review as a “double standard.”