There is a lot of hot air blowing around the West these days, blustery claims that geothermal, wind, massive solar installations, nuclear power, along with a smattering of hydroelectric dams, will help the country achieve a much-needed reduction in climate-altering emissions. Certainly, there is money to be made off of this energy transition, and on paper, a few do appear to be far less damaging than coal-fired power plants and natural gas operations.
That’s if, of course, you ignore the toll these energy ventures have on the lands and people they exploit. Right now, not far from where I live in Southern California, solar companies are gobbling up public and private lands for future solar and wind projects.
Across the border in Nevada, desert is under threat of being developed in the name of fighting climate change. In the rich and biodiverse Dixie Valley, located in the middle of sacred Shoshone and Paiute lands, a massive geothermal project called the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Development Project faced a fierce legal challenge this past year. Geothermal, like hydroelectric dams, is often cited as a renewable energy source, since the technology harnesses heat from the earth to produce electricity, which in theory (as long as it doesn’t stop raining, surprise!), is endless.
Even so, large geothermal plants consume a lot of land and spit out a lot of water. The Dixie Meadows project, which was proposed in Nevada, was one such “green” energy plan that, if built, would suck up over 40,000 thousand acre-feet of water every single year, the result of which would be devasting. Dixie’s delicate wetlands habitat, unique to this stretch of the Great Basin, is home to the imperiled black-freckled Dixie Valley toad, and even a slight alteration of surface water conditions could spell extinction for this rare little toad. Birds too use Dixie’s natural spring water as migratory stopovers. Dixie Meadows is a literal oasis in the desert and has been for tens of thousands of years.
“The United States has repeatedly promised to honor and protect indigenous sacred sites, but then the BLM approved a major construction project nearly on top of our most sacred hot springs. It just feels like more empty words,” said Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Chairwoman Cathi Tuni following the announcement of the Dixie Meadows project. “This location has long been recognized as being of vital significance to the Tribe. There are geothermal plants elsewhere in Dixie Valley and the Great Basin that we have not opposed, but construction of this plant would build industrial power plants right next to a sacred place of healing and reflection, and risks damaging the water in the springs forever. We have a duty to protect the hot springs and its surroundings, and we will do so.”
On December 16, 2021, The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and the Center of Biological Diversity (Center) sued the BLM over its approval of the Dixie Meadows geothermal project, and in early August were successful in stopping it from moving forward.
“I’m thrilled that yet again the bulldozers are grinding to a halt as a result of our legal actions,” said Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin director at the Center. “Nearly every scientist who has evaluated this project agrees that it puts the Dixie Valley toad in the crosshairs of extinction. This agreement gives the toad a fighting shot.”
About 270 miles south of Dixie Meadows, another “green” energy plan is in the works near the remote Searchlight, Nevada. The Kulning Wind Project, proposed by Eolus Vind AB, a Swedish power developer, is not unlike other wind projects that were halted in 2017 and 2018 after an outcry from local Tribes and conservationists. Kulning, like the prospects that were shot down, is massive and would include 68 wind turbines spanning 9,300 acres of federal lands on the site of the proposed Avi Kwa Ame (Ah-VEE kwa-meh) National Monument. Like Dixie Meadows, Kulning would greatly impact local wildlife.
“[The] development would likely undermine the use of the region by bighorn sheep and would introduce an unnecessary wildfire risk, threatening Wee Thump and South McCullough wildernesses, among many other concerns,” says Paul Selberg, director of Nevada Conservation League. “Decisions on where to develop renewable energy must be evaluated critically and placed in areas that are appropriate.”
The real question is; are expansive energy projects, be they fossil fuels or “green”, ever really “appropriate”? Indigenous communities and conservationists are wary.
The land outside Searchlight where these huge twirling wings are to be erected is considered a sacred “place of creation” to 12 local tribes, including the Havasupai, Hualapai, Kumeyaay, Maricopa, Mojave, Pai Pai, Quechan, and Yavapai. Opponents of the development, led by a broad coalition of tribes, point out that this stretch of the Mojave is some of the most pristine, in-tact wilderness in the Southwest.
Joshua trees (known as sovarampi to the Southern Paiute) in this area, which make up the largest Joshua forest in Nevada, will be destroyed if the project moves forward. These distinctive, twisted trees are already facing a bleak future in the West. Mojave’s high desert is becoming even hotter and drier than normal, dropping nearly 2 inches from its average of just over 4.5 inches of annual rainfall just a decade ago. The result: younger Joshua trees, which grow at a snail’s pace of 3 inches per year, are perishing before they reach a foot in height. Their vanishing is an indicator that these peculiar trees will not be replenished once they grow old and die, and they are dying at a startling rate.
While it has not received as much attention as Bears Ears or Gold Butte, Avi Kwa Ame National Monument is equally important as an ecological and cultural site, which would span 450,000 acres, protecting the delicate landscape from energy developers (to support the proposed monument, you can sign a petition here).
At the center of this onslaught of development is California’s quest to end the use of fossil fuels. Most of the energy in the state, one of the largest energy consumers in the country, is generated from utility-scale wind and solar, which, as of 2016, has required over 400,000 square kilometers of land to produce. This development, because it is billed as “green” energy, has received little scrutiny from the broader environmental movement. As a result, studies on the effects on biodiversity and threatened species, like the Desert Tortoise, are virtually non-existent.
In Northern Nevada, a similar fight is raging over Thacker Pass, where a proposed mine would produce upwards of 80,000 tons of lithium per year, a mineral that is crucial for most electric car batteries. Lithium Nevada, the company spearheading the Thacker project, is facing strong pushback from activists and members of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, among others.
“Places like Thacker Pass are what gets sacrificed to create that so-called clean energy,” says author and activist Max Wilbert. “It is easy to say the sacrifice is justifiable if you do not live here.”
Indigenous communities are equally upset at the plan.
“Annihilating old-growth sagebrush, Indigenous peoples’ medicines, food, and ceremonial grounds for electric vehicles isn’t very climate conscious,” said Arlan Melendez, the chair of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.
Opposition to the lithium mine has invigorated a new, vibrant protest movement in Nevada, led by Indigenous activists that see these developments for what they are: a continuation of settler-colonialism, an onslaught fully supported by the Democrats and the Biden Administration. In the case of EVs, Biden’s 2021 American Jobs Plan earmarked $174 billion to promote electric vehicles. The Thacker mine, claims Lithium Nevada, is central to those efforts.
There are also alternatives to lithium like seawater, sodium, and glass batteries. While none are environmentally benign, the impacts do vary. Maria Helena Braga a scientist at the University of Porto in Portugal, who has been researching glass battery technology, believes glass has the brightest future. “It’s the most eco-friendly cell you can find,” claims Braga.
Recently, researchers at the University of California San Diego’s Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice disagreed that we need to mine our way out of climate change, stating that in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions we would have to decrease our output by 80% over the next thirty years. EVs, they claim, would only reduce greenhouse gases by 6%. In other words, the destruction these mines cause is not worth such little benefit. A larger, far more significant transition is needed.
In addition to technological advances (and the need to consume less), the energy grid itself must be revamped, from centralized sources of energy like coal or natural gas to a decentralized network of producers, where existing homes and commercial buildings are required to install solar on their rooftops. Big utilities, like PG&E in California, which has been responsible for causing over 1,500 fires and hundreds of deaths in the state, are not pleased with the push for community-controlled, decentralized power. In fact, in an effort to disincentivize rooftop solar, California regulators, after heavy lobbying from energy companies, are currently pushing to slash residential solar incentives, making the transition even more difficult, while supporting large desert developments in the process.
Shame on California. This helps big solar developers kill desert habitats.☹️https://t.co/yiMqcg9JC3
— Basin & Range Watch (@BasinRange) December 14, 2021
Hundreds of plans for large renewable energy projects are currently in the works in California, New Mexico, and Nevada, and one by one they are set to destroy vast stretches of desert habitat. In 2015, researchers from UC Berkeley and UC Riverside looked at 161 proposed and operational solar plants. What they found was startling. Only 10-15 percent of the projects in California were located in areas that would have little impact on their surroundings. In other words, 85% of these would harm the environments where they’re located.
“We would hope that if a developer was on the ground and saw that, oh, this is a really important area for migratory birds, maybe we should look at that Walmart commercial roof down the road, and collaborate with them rather than putting it here,” said the study’s lead author Rebecca Hernandez, a scientist at UC Berkeley.
While the push for decentralizing is paramount, some argue that locating green energy installations in already impacted areas, like brownfields, is a good alternative. Yet this is rarely the most profitable choice. At the heart of the problem is that public lands in the desert west are inexpensive. The Bureau of Land Management leases huge parcels of these lands for dirt cheap, which in turn incentivizes large-scale wind and solar projects — projects that support Biden’s climate plan, where companies like PG&E will continue to control the grid and small-scale projects will be difficult and expensive to build.
If the goal of clean, green energy is to offset the wrath of climate catastrophe, yet damages sensitive habitats in the process, are these projects even worthwhile? That’s a question environmentalists and others must grapple with. Certainly, they are good for profit margins, but the evidence is mounting that they are also devastating to desert ecology.