A renewable energy developer is moving on from a Nevada wind project after years of legal wrangling, its dreams of a 200-megawatt wind farm killed by environmentalists who successfully argued the power plant could harm golden eagles and desert tortoises.
Federal officials approved the Searchlight wind farm – which would have included 87 wind turbines on public land sixty miles south of Las Vegas, near the California border – four years ago. But conservationists took the federal Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to court, arguing the agencies hadn’t adequately analyzed the impacts to federally protected species. In 2015, a federal judge agreed, invalidating Searchlight’s environmental review and throwing out its government permit – a first for a renewable energy facility.
An appeals court upheld that ruling in October – and now the developer, Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy, has apparently decided to stop fighting. A spokesperson for the Bureau of Land Management’s Nevada office told The Desert Sun the developer has taken down its meteorological towers, which are used to test wind resources at potential turbine sites. Apex is working with federal officials to close out the Searchlight project.
“The BLM will inspect the land to make sure the (met towers) are gone and the land where they were is reclaimed,” agency spokesperson Kirsten Cannon said in an email.
An Apex spokesperson didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment. But the developer has taken down a page from its website that touted the Searchlight wind farm.
The wind farm would have stretched across 9,300 acres of public land outside the town of Searchlight, created 275 construction jobs and generated enough electricity to power 70,000 homes, federal officials said when they approved the project in 2013. Its supporters included former Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who hails from Searchlight.
“I hope the Searchlight Wind Project will soon create more good-paying jobs that will continue building Nevada’s clean energy leadership,” Reid said in a 2015 statement, which was still posted on Apex Clean Energy’s website as of Friday afternoon.
Renewable energy development has at times divided environmentalists in the Southwest, with advocates saying solar and wind farms are needed to fight global warming and critics saying they hurt desert ecosystems. Conservationists have urged government officials to put a greater emphasis on rooftop solar, and to allow large-scale solar and wind farms only on lands that have already been disturbed by development.
Jeff Aardahl, a biologist with Defenders of Wildlife, said Searchlight may be the first federally approved renewable energy project conclusively defeated by concerns over its ecosystem impacts.
Aardahl said he “can’t recall seeing something similar unfold on any other project, at least in the California deserts or in Nevada,” where the vast majority of federally approved clean energy projects are located. He added that environmental impacts may have been a factor in other developers’ decisions to abandon a few projects.
Conservationists’ opposition to big renewable energy projects has frustrated many renewable energy advocates, who say global warming poses a far greater threat to wildlife than solar and wind farms. Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, said government environmental reviews give “no credit to the fact that wind energy is far less harmful to wildlife than the energy sources it displaces.”
“In California, the BLM has largely closed off development to wind energy, while 80 percent of BLM land in California is open to oil and gas drilling,” Rader said in an email. “This trajectory is not consistent with weaning the country off of fossil fuels.”
Conservationists and clean energy advocates clashed over the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, which was finalized by the Obama administration last year. The plan sets aside 6.5 million acres of California desert for conservation and 3.6 million acres for recreation, while designating 388,000 acres for clean energy projects. Solar and wind trade groups were furious, saying the plan would stifle development and make it harder for California to meet its ambitious clean energy and climate goals.
State and federal officials say the California desert plan strikes a good balance between fighting climate change and protecting sensitive ecosystems. When President Barack Obama’s Interior secretary, Sally Jewell, came to Palm Desert to announce the plan’s completion in September, she said the Obama administration had already approved 59 solar, wind and geothermal energy projects on public lands, which she said would generate enough climate-friendly electricity to power more than 5 million homes.
But those numbers were misleading then – and they’re even more misleading now that the Searchlight proposal has been taken off the books.
A Desert Sun investigation found that of the 60 renewable energy projects that were ultimately approved by the Obama administration, just 31 were operating or under construction by November 2016. Six had been cancelled and 21 were stuck in limbo, some due to economic difficulties and others because of environmental concerns. Two of the projects on Obama’s list were actually approved by President George W. Bush.
Searchlight isn’t the only federally approved renewable energy facility that’s faced new setbacks since November. Earlier this week, a federal judge threw out the government permit for the planned 104-megawatt Echanis wind farm in Oregon, ruling in favor of conservationists who said federal officials hadn’t sufficiently studied potential impacts to the greater sage grouse, a chicken-like bird known for its colorful mating rituals.
The Searchlight lawsuit was filed by two conservation groups, two individuals who live near the project site, and a member of the Fort Mojave Native American tribe, who said he and his tribe use spirit trails that would have been interrupted by the wind farm. The trails lead to Spirit Mountain, a sacred site for many Lower Colorado River tribes.
Kevin Emmerich – who co-founded one of the conservation groups that brought the lawsuit, Basin and Range Watch – said the Piute Valley, where the wind farm would have been built, is a poor location for an industrial energy project. He pointed out that surveys found many more golden eagle nests surrounding the project site than federal officials initially claimed, which is one of the reasons a judge threw out the environmental review. The project site is also surrounded by critical habitat for the desert tortoise, which is listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The project’s 428-foot wind turbines would have been visible from Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada, from Mojave National Preserve in California, and from the newly designated Castle Mountains National Monument in California, Emmerich said.
“We’ve been opposed to the project from the beginning because of its location. We want to try to make renewable smarter, in better areas, in more disturbed areas,” he said.
Emmerich lives in Beatty, Nevada. He and his wife Laura Cunningham, who run Basin and Range Watch, work to protect land on both sides of the California-Nevada border.
“We have friends who live in Searchlight, and we’ve hiked up Piute Creek, and we’ve hiked in the Castle Mountains,” Emmerich said. “The Piute Valley area is a favorite.”
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