NIMBYism Puts The Kibosh On America’s Largest Solar Power Plant

Environment

In many parts of the American southwest, a mesa is a flat topped geological formation known as a tableland. One of them is the Morman Mesa, a 149,000 acre tableland located above the confluence of the Muddy and Virgin Rivers, north of Las Vegas, Nevada.

The area is under the control of the federal Bureau of Land Management and is a protected area for the desert tortoise. It is also the home of Double Negative, an artistic rendering by artist Micheal Heizer. It consists of two trenches 30 feet wide, 50 feet deep, and 1500 feet long dug into the Earth. It is significant that the 244,000 tons of rocks excavated to create the “sculpture” were unceremoniously dumped into the valley below during its construction. More about that later.

Several years ago, a plan spearheaded by then Senator Harry Reid was put forward to build Battle Born Solar Project, the largest solar power plant in the United States, on Mormon Mesa. The project would cover 14 square miles — about 9000 acres, or less than 7% of the mesa’s total area. Over time, the project developer became Solar Partner VII, a subsidiary of California based Arevia.

Even though the project would be sited out of sight of nearby towns, it provoked a fierce backlash from the local community, a backlash that coalesced into something called Save Our Mesa. At the end of July, Arevia notified BLM it was abandoning the project. The Save Our Mesa folks were ecstatic.

The group argued such a large installation would be an eyesore and curtail the area’s popular recreational activities such as riding dirt bikes and ATVs and skydiving. It also said it would discourage tourists from visiting Heizer’s Double Negative sculpture. But the heart of the protest was “not in my backyard” self-interest. Let’s take a look at the overheated language presented on the group’s website.

I first want to make it clear that we are just a group of residents that saw a possible tragedy for our community and our way of life. We are NOT against renewable energy, we are against irresponsible decisions that are being made without sufficient studies as to what the impacts are.

The majority of our community’s revenue comes from tourism. We lost a lot of tourism and businesses when the shrinking lake levels of Lake Mead occurred closing a nearby beach. We have struggled but built back our economy through tourism. When people come and camp/hotel for a week, they buy our gas, our groceries, eat in our restaurants, use our mechanics and parts stores. This allows these businesses to thrive thus keeping us self sufficient. Feedback from many of our Snowbirds was that they would look for new places to go ‘[if the solar power plant was built]. That’s lost revenue. 

We were simply trying to save our community and our way of life. We are not expendable for the “greater good” as I was told we should be! Moapa Valley would NOT gain anything from this project. In fact the power was slated for California. So why should we sacrifice OUR lives? The solar farm that was being proposed was going to be the largest in the nation. 14 sq miles, equivalent to 2/3 the size of Manhattan. Our homes are less than 8000’ from it.

There aren’t enough studies to show what this size of a project would do to us. Will our temps be too hot to live here, would the dust choke us or make us sick, would we ever get rainfall? Would our rivers, that run down both sides of the Mesa into Lake Mead, get contaminated? The list goes on. These were SERIOUS concerns! Simply “saying” that won’t happen, was not good enough, we were essentially going to be lab rats. Our goal all along was to get them to move this project to a more appropriate location, in which they have stated is one of their reasons for withdrawal.

Why are we not pushing for rooftop solar as much as we are pushing to destroy the desert southwests public lands? Look at the rooftops available in major metropolitan areas alone!! Las Vegas has thousands of acres of rooftop with the casinos alone!

We need to slow this rush to solar farms in the desert until studies are done. What will it look like in 10, 20, or 30 years down the road when all these solar farms age out. Are we creating a bigger problem for our future generations when there is millions of tons of non-recyclable waste? The deserts would never recover. Once it’s done, it can’t be undone.

Dissecting The Opposition

OK. That’s quite a long list of complaints Save Our Mesa has got there. And some of them are valid. If the Battle Born Solar Project did actually have a negative impact on the local economy [the developers says it would create over 2,000 new jobs], that would be a valid reason to oppose it. But many of the group’s complaints are 100% pure horse puckey.

A solar power plant will create dust that will roll down and pollute the local lakes and rivers, but thousands of people tearing up the landscape on dirt bikes, off-road vehicles, and jeeps won’t? That strains credulity. Millions of tons of non-recyclable waste? Where did they hear that, Tucker Carlson? And what about the 244,000 tons of debris from the Double Negative project that got dumped into the valley below. Was that used to mulch the petunias in local flower beds?

That seems like the comment left recently on a story I did about Toyota and its anti-EV policies. “Super smart move, let’s all replace CO2 emissions with toxic batteries that end up in rivers and lakes.” Yup, there’s some certified Artificial Stupidity right there.

Selfishness And Self-Interest

NIMBYism is strong in some of the group’s complaints. Why should they provide electricity to those pinheads in San Francisco and LA? The connection between an overheating planet and a lack of water to fill Lake Mead apparently is too remote for them to comprehend. But people are funny. Folks in Wyoming wonder the same thing about wind farms that supply power to West Coast nerds. Those who live in western New York are none too keen about giving up their farmland to keep the lights on in New York City.

Can you suggest a strategy that might help get people onboard with renewable energy? How about cutting them in on the deal by sharing some of that clean energy with the local community? That’s such a no brainer that it’s hard to believe every renewable energy developer doesn’t make it part of their toolkit every time a project is proposed.

Would the attitudes of local residents change if they could have access to clean energy at an attractive price? How about helping them get residential storage batteries that would keep their lights on if there is a power outage?

The Takeaway

A lot of the complaints about the Battle Born Solar Project are overblown, but there is a kernel of reality to them. People who are worried about their personal finances are inclined to be a little bit skittish about slick-talking outsiders riding into town with a trunk load of fancy promises. I’m nobody from nowhere, but I know a developer has to offer the locals something to get them to buy in to all those pie-in-the-sky plans.

You wouldn’t expect a new car customer to buy an EV just because it’s good for the planet, would you? Why should renewable energy be any different? These developers don’t seem to have a very good understanding of human behavior. Yes, the locals doth protest too much, but the developer deserves some blame for handling the public relations aspect of its project so poorly.

Why spend all that time and money on plans and permits but none on some good old-fashioned salesmanship? The US and the world are the big losers in this deal.

[Editor’s note: Some research in Denmark several years ago found that a critical solution to avoid NIMBYism blocking large wind power projects was to bring the financial benefits to locals to some degree — give them a cut of the profits. I’m not sure how much that insight is used by large renewable energy project developers, but as Steve says, at this stage, “it’s hard to believe every renewable energy developer doesn’t make it part of their toolkit every time a project is proposed.” My impression, though, is that not much is offered to local communities in almost all cases. Promises of jobs and an economic boost, of course, but not clear direct benefits to nearby residents. —Zach]

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