BLM advancing Nev.'s largest project with tortoise, visual impact protections

Posted: Dec 17, 2012

Written by

Piute Valley

The Bureau of Land Management has completed its environmental analysis of a proposed wind power project in southeast Nevada that if built would become the Silver State's largest wind farm.

BLM's final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Searchlight Wind Energy Project is not expected to be formally published until tomorrow in the Federal Register but is already available online. The wind farm, which has been under federal review for nearly three years, would have the capacity to produce up to 200 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power about 70,000 homes and businesses.

The final EIS proposes to string together 87 wind-generating turbines along the Eldorado Mountains in the Piute Valley, about 60 miles southeast of Las Vegas.

A record of decision (ROD) authorizing the project is expected to be finalized by late January, Gregory Helseth, renewable energy project manager for BLM's Las Vegas field office, said today in an emailed response to questions from Greenwire.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy Corp., the Searchlight project's proponent, wants to bring the wind farm online by 2015, according to BLM.

Duke Energy did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

Duke Energy is partnering with the Energy Department's Western Area Power Administration to connect the wind farm to an existing 230-kilovolt transmission line. Western would construct and operate a new switching station for the plant on 3.5 acres near the site.

The 87-turbine layout identified as BLM's "preferred alternative" in the final EIS is a significantly smaller project than the original proposal, which called for erecting 161 turbines within 18,790 acres of federal land. The original project design had the capacity to produce 370 MW.

The decision to scale back the number of turbines was made, among other reasons, to reduce impacts to the federally threatened Mojave Desert tortoise. The region is dominated by federal "areas of critical environmental concern" (ACEC), and the project site is surrounded by the Piute-Eldorado ACEC for the Mojave Desert tortoise.

The final EIS warns that "injury or death to desert tortoise, Gila monster or other special status wildlife" is possible during construction of the wind farm. In addition, birds and bats could be injured or killed "due to construction activities, operation of turbines, and collisions with new transmission lines."

Duke Energy also agreed to scale back the project to reduce visual impacts in an area that sits less than 2 miles west of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. The proposed wind turbines, including the massive blades, would tower as high as 415 feet, and "community concerns were raised regarding the potential visual impacts," specifically that the original 161-turbine layout would have "surrounded" the nearby town of Searchlight, according to the final EIS.

It is clear from the final EIS that BLM and Duke Energy had little choice but to scale back the proposal, even though that would reduce the amount of clean energy the wind farm could produce over the 30-year life of the project.

Still, Searchlight Wind is set to become the eighth commercial-scale wind power project approved by the Obama administration since 2009.

The seven already approved wind projects -- including the 3,000 MW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project in southeast Wyoming, which would be the largest wind farm in North America -- cover a total of 132,167 acres of federal land in California, Nevada, Wyoming and Oregon, according to federal data. In total, the seven wind projects have the capacity to produce 3,863 MW of electricity, or enough to power about 1.3 million homes.

Nevada has a renewable portfolio standard that requires the state's major utility, NV Energy, to use renewable resources to generate 25 percent of its sales by 2025. But it is not clear whether the electricity generated at Searchlight Wind would stay in Nevada or be transported to major load centers in Southern California.

Trend-setting project

Searchlight Wind is a rare industrial-scale wind project in Nevada, which is known more for its solar and geothermal power potential.

The only large-scale wind farm approved and in operation to date in Nevada is the 150 MW Spring Valley Wind Energy Facility in east-central Nevada, which BLM approved in 2010. That project, developed by San Francisco-based Pattern Energy Group LP, finished construction this summer, and the wind farm went fully online in August, said Matt Dallas, a company spokesman.

Until the Spring Valley project went into operation, Nevada was the only Western state with no active wind farms, and one of 12 such states nationwide, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

But Searchlight Wind is one of six wind power projects identified by BLM as a priority for final approval by the end of 2012.

BLM's priority project list for 2012 includes four other renewables projects in Nevada: a 62 MW geothermal power project and three large-scale solar projects that have a total proposed capacity of 850 MW of electricity.

Although Searchlight is the only Nevada wind project on BLM's priority list, the American Wind Energy Association estimates the state's wind resources could produce 7,247 MW of electricity, or enough to provide nearly 60 percent of the state's current electricity needs.

NREL studies have indicated that the state's wind resources are located mostly in sparse pockets in southeast Nevada and on the northwest side of the state.

BLM's Helseth said his office is evaluating six wind power applications in the state. But those projects are all in the early stages, he said, with developers still conducting meteorological testing to gauge wind speeds. He said in his email that beyond those six projects, there "are no new wind projects in the foreseeable future" on BLM land in the state.

AWEA estimated earlier this year that projects proposed for Nevada on public and private lands could produce as much as 3,913 MW -- enough to power about 1.3 million homes.

Tortoise mitigation efforts

There are, however, concerns about wildlife habitat impacts to sensitive and threatened species that have prompted some to question the suitability of the Searchlight Wind project site.

The proposed site is in an area of heavy bird migration, potentially putting red-shouldered hawks and spotted bats at risk of being crushed by the whirling turbine blades.

Duke Energy has proposed a series of mitigation measures analyzed in the final EIS that, in addition to scaling back the size of the project, should help to address all the potential environmental impacts.

The biggest environmental concern is the Mojave Desert tortoise.

The final EIS notes that 249 acres of desert tortoise habitat would be temporarily disturbed by the project and that any tortoise "or tortoise eggs in the area during initial ground grading activities could be crushed, killed, or trapped in natural burrows."

The Fish and Wildlife Service completed a Biological Opinion of the project that includes "required mitigation measures" to be implemented during construction and operation of the wind farm.

Among the measures is a requirement for Duke Energy to appoint a compliance manager who will ensure "preconstruction surveys" are conducted to locate any tortoise on site and that the tortoises are handled properly. The company must also install desert tortoise fencing "around permanent facility structures," and all holes or steep depressions must be fenced off or covered each night to prevent the tortoises from falling in and becoming trapped.

In addition, "desert tortoise cautions signs" will be installed on all turbine access roads, and where possible "motor vehicles will be limited to maintained roads and designated routes," according to the final EIS.

Implementation of these mitigation measures, along with construction standards and best management practices, would reduce impacts to "less than significant" levels, BLM concludes in the final EIS.

The desert tortoise has become a major obstacle for solar and wind power projects in the desert Southwest. BLM last year temporarily halted construction of BrightSource Energy Inc.'s 392 MW Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in Southern California's Mojave Desert after the agency found construction would lead to the loss of 3,520 acres of tortoise habitat, the capture of as many as 274 tortoises and the deaths of as many as 608 of the iconic desert species (Greenwire, April 28, 2011).

Before construction even began, BrightSource Energy scaled back its original project proposal, cutting the project's footprint by 12 percent, mostly in an effort to reduce the number of tortoises that would need to be relocated.

BrightSource took steps at the site to reduce tortoise impacts, and the project resumed construction (Land Letter, June 16, 2011). The Ivanpah solar power plant is expected to come online next year.

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