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Federal Solar Energy Initiative Is Local In Nevada Town

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Federal Solar Energy Initiative Is Local In Nevada Town

Federal Solar Energy Initiative Is Local In Nevada Town

For Clayton Hanlon, the push for solar development in the southwest is all about new jobs. Hanlon is a trained mason, but he hasn’t been able to find work anywhere in his tiny Mojave Desert town.

"I hope to get a job working at the solar power plant," says Hanlon from the home he shares with his wife and four children in Amargosa Valley. He also says there will be a ripple effect of economic growth if his town becomes a solar hub. "The solar power plants will also bring other people to live in the community," he says. "I could help people build their houses also in my spare time."

The Amagosa Valley, which is near Death Valley National Park on the western edge of Nevada, is awash in sunshine. It’s flat and close to transmission lines--ideal conditions for solar. Solar companies have already taken notice, and there are three applications pending to build solar plants here. Now the the Bureau of Land Management wants to establish a Solar Energy Zone on public land nearby.

Linda Resseguie of the BLM says the best way to describe the Solar Energy Zones idea is "guiding solar development to the places where it makes the most sense." 

The proposed 24 zones add up to more than 670,000 acres in six states, including Arizona, New Mexico and California. Solar developers would likely have an easier time building within the zones because the government has already vetted the land to make sure there aren't major environmental concerns, like habitat for endangered animals.

"If companies try to locate in places with a lot of conflicts and a lot of challenges, it is not going to happen fast," says Resseguie, noting that so far, several proposed solar projects on public lands have been stalled due to opposition from conservationists and local residents.

The BLM is currently seeking public comment on the Solar Energy Zone proposal in a series of public meetings throughout the region.

Streamlining renewable energy is a big shift for Washington, which has historically focused on oil and gas. Using public land for renewable energy became a priority under Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. 

That mandate is good news for the solar industry. But some say the BLM's current proposal to create Solar Energy Zones doesn't go far enough.

 "We would be happy if BLM hit the pause and reset button," says Shannon Eddy of the Large Scale Solar Association, an industry organization that promotes solar development.

Eddy likes the idea of solar zones but says the agency needs to do more to ensure the approach will translate into a faster permitting process for solar companies. "The zones they have put out there they have not done the appropriate analysis on them, so we are not really sure that we can build in these zones even though they have set them aside."

For example, Eddy says one proposed zone in California is practically useless for solar development because it isn’t close to transmission lines. Conservationists also oppose that same zone because they say it is critical for wildlife. Eddy would like to see the BLM set aside more public land in the desert as a priority zone for solar.

Environmental activist Kevin Emmerich couldn't disagree more. 

"It is an area of great visual beauty," he says while taking in the view of mountains and empty desert land on the proposed Amargosa Valely Solar Energy Zone. The zone is a 30,000 acre swath of land along Highway 95.

Emmerich, who lives about 15 miles from the proposed zone, doesn’t want to see the landscape transformed into a sea of photovoltaic cells and mirrors. He's also worried there isn't enough water in the area to sustain a cluster of thirsty solar plants. "I'm not against solar energy at all," Emmerich says. "We just want the location to be sited a lot better."

He would rather see solar panels on roofs in urban centers like Las Vegas than pristine public land converted into an industrial area. But Clayton Hanlon, the unemployed construction worker, says Amargosa Valley is the perfect place for these plants. He's focused on the promise of construction jobs, which could number in the several thousands if multiple power plants are built here.

"They can put that solar power plant right in front of my house and I wouldn't mind at all," he says.

Update: The BLM will accept public comment on the proposed Solar Energy Zones until April 16, 30 days later than intended as a result of "numerous requests" to extend the deadline.

Jude Joffe-Block Senior Field Correspondent, Fronteras Desk - Phoenix KJZZ Senior Field Correspondent Jude Joffe-Block got hooked on radio while working as an assitant to a radio reporter in Mexico, and has been happiest wearing headphones and pointing microphones ever since. Joffe-Block began serving KJZZ in October 2010 as a Fronteras: Changing America Senior Field Correspondent based out of Las Vegas, Nevada. She joined the Phoenix newsroom in July 2012. Before joining the Fronteras Desk, she contributed stories on immigration and criminal justice to KALW in San Francisco and multimedia content in both Spanish and English to The Associated Press in Mexico. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and Yale University, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico.