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Tina Casey headshot

Electrification Chokepoints in Nevada Make the Case for a Holistic Perspective on Decarbonization

By Tina Casey

Sunny skies, geothermal hotspots, mineral resources and plenty of federal land for lease have all made Nevada a focus of activity in the electrification movement. The state has also emerged as a key testing ground for President Joe Biden’s ambitious decarbonization plans for the nation. The question is where to locate massive new energy and mining operations. Some Nevadans are saying: not here.

Solar power for electrification

Nevada is no stranger to utility-scale solar power. Ten years ago, the Obama-era Department of Energy (DOE) promoted the state as a proving ground for massive concentrating solar power plants, which use sprawling fields of special mirrors to collect and focus solar energy.

Large arrays of solar panels have sprouted across the state, in addition to smaller rooftop installations.

Altogether, the Solar Energy Industries Association counts 3,903.8 megawatts of installed solar in Nevada, giving the state the high-ranking position of sixth place in the nation. That’s quite a feat for a state that only ranks 35th in population.

Nevada does rank seventh in land mass, which indicates that there is plenty of room for the solar industry to grow. A full 63 percent of that land is owned by the federal government, raising the potential for energy production leases. However, solar industry players involved with federal land within the state must work with and around tribal rights, nature conservation and recreational interests.

Recently, the California-based solar developer Arevia Power formally withdrew plans to build a new 850-megawatt solar array on federal land. The so-named Battle Born Solar Project would have taken up 9,000 acres on Mormon Mesa in Clark County, and it would have been the largest such array in the state, if built.

Opponents made their case partly on an economic basis, arguing that the new solar power plant would block a longstanding, tourist-attracting motorcycle rally from using the area. It would also curtail the use of ATVs.

From a conservation perspective, opposition from those quarters is somewhat ironic, considering the damage incurred by raceways and off-road vehicles, in addition to impacts related to spectators and vendors, as well as the contribution of vehicles to air pollution.

Nevertheless, that is the end of the Battle Born Solar Power Plant. However, it is not the end of Arevia Power, which is still assisting in the development of the 690 megawatt Gemini solar project, located in the same general area north of Las Vegas.

Renewable energy transmission lines now under fire

Renewable energy transmission lines have also emerged as another key area of contention.

The utility NV Energy has laid ambitious plans for the two-part Greenlink transmission project in southern Nevada. Greenlink West will travel 350 miles from Las Vegas to Yerington, NV. Greenlink North will go from Yerington to Ely (shown above).

The twin projects create “a renewable energy highway that allows access to Nevada’s resource-rich renewable energy zones, containing about 5,000 megawatts of undeveloped renewable resources, that could not previously be developed due to the lack of necessary transmission infrastructure,” NV Energy explains.

Among the beneficiaries will be Reno, which is attracting attention as a tech and industry center, thanks in part to its role as host to a Tesla Motors Gigafactory. Apple, Google and Switch also have footprints there, and the tech giants have made renewable energy access a centerpiece of their investments.

A key selling point is that the new line will enable Nevada to exploit more of its solar and geothermal resources, in order to counterbalance its relatively low potential for hydro and wind power.

Opponents argue that reclaiming abandoned mines, rooftops and other pre-developed sites are more sustainable pathways for electrification, in contrast to plowing through virgin territory that includes wildlife habitat, cultural sites and public recreation areas.

As of press time, the opposition has been characterized as coming from small but vocal groups, and the transmission project appears to be on track. However, considering the ten-year battle over transmission lines intended for renewable energy in other states, a successful conclusion to the permitting process is not yet assured.

Electric vehicles and the lithium question

Another critical area in the electrification field is the availability of lithium for rechargeable batteries. Nevada has become a battleground in that area, too.

“Before breaking ground on an open-pit lithium mine that would process ore in Humboldt County for 46 years, Lithium Nevada plans to dig up and cart away Native American artifacts — and possibly burials — at the site frequented by Nevada tribes for millennia,” reads the opening lines of a long form news article on one such battle, as reported by Frank X. Mullen of the Reno News Review.

Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes have organized to stop the project, which would damage hundreds of cultural resource sites and dozens of properties eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The Trump administration rushed approval for the project through during the former president’s last days in office. In March the Biden administration filed suit to stop it, citing a failure to conform to environmental review processes.

While that battle rages on in court, the Biden administration has also taken steps against another lithium mine proposed for Nevada, on account of habitat populated by a rare wildflower.

What about green hydrogen for low-impact electrification?

There is no easy way out of the complex thicket of electrification impacts. However, new technologies could help decentralize access to renewable energy, increase the use of buildings and other pre-developed sites for energy generation, and alleviate the need for large centralized power plants and new transmission lines.

The DOE has been promoting distributed energy resources as the cornerstone of a more sustainable, reliable, and resilient electricity grid. Part of the emphasis is on perovskite solar cells and other new solar technologies that reduce costs, and which could be used in a wider range of applications compared to conventional solar panels.

In addition, the DOE is also promoting new technologies for lithium extraction from brine at geothermal sites. Though not impact-free, these facilities would disturb far less surface area than the open pit lithium mines in use today.

Called “direct lithium extraction” (DLE), the technology has been cited as a significant development by the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

In a report issued earlier this month, the lab noted that “DLE could be a game-changing extraction method, potentially delivering 10 times the current U.S. lithium demand from California’s Salton Sea known geothermal area alone.”

Improvements in energy storage technology can also come into play, by enabling factories and other facilities to maximize the output from on site or nearby renewable energy resources, instead of pushing the demand for new transmission lines.

That’s where the newly emerging green hydrogen field comes in. As both an energy storage medium and a means of generating zero emission electricity, green hydrogen can be produced, stored and used on site. It can also be transported on the nation’s existing network of roads and waterways for use elsewhere. The vast network of existing fossil energy pipelines could also potentially provide fuel for transportation.

Leading manufacturers are already introducing new gas turbines that can transition from natural gas to green hydrogen, which further raises the potential for re-using existing power plants and other industrial sites for zero emission electricity production.

Finally, the transportation sector is already bending to embrace green hydrogen as a pathway for electrification. Manufacturers of cars and virtually every other type of motorized device — from SUVs and trucks to locomotives, airplanes and watercraft — are beginning to introduce hydrogen fuel cells to their roster.

Considering the rapid improvements in lithium-ion battery technology, it is unlikely that fuel cells will replace batteries for vehicle electrification. However, fuel cells could become a significant part of the transportation electrification movement.

Together with an increased emphasis on mass transportation, bicycle-friendly streets and walkable communities, fuel cell vehicles could help relieve pressure on the lithium supply chain.

In the meantime, business leaders who promote electrification need to make a greater effort to emphasize grid decentralization and alternative technologies that can help promote a more holistic perspective on sustainability.

Image credit: Britta Preusse/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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