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Gemini Solar: A Billion-Dollar Vegas Boondoggle

AP Photo/Reed Saxon, File

On May 11, the Interior Department approved Gemini Solar, the largest solar power project in U.S. history. It is to be built by Arevia Power, a California-based energy group, with backing from Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. and Nevada’s energy utility NV Energy, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which will be the customer for the project’s electricity. Gemini Solar will sit on 7,100 acres of public land, the size of 5,369 football fields, in the Mohave Desert, about 30 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

The estimated $1 billion cost pales in comparison to the trillions of dollars being spent battling the coronavirus and its economy-destroying aftermath. But a boondoggle by any other name remains a boondoggle and, even though it takes NV Energy a step closer to complying with Nevada’s nonsensical law that requires utility providers to get at least half the energy they produce from renewables, Gemini Solar is certainly a boondoggle.

This ambitious three-year project will never come close to its target of 690 megawatts, enough to power 260,000 homes. And the 900 new construction jobs that the Department of the Interior (DOI) boasts will be created by Gemini Solar will quickly shrink to only 19 full-time workers required to operate the plant once it is completed in December 2023, according to the Reuters news agency.

Studies in Europe show that the cost of renewable energy such as solar raises electricity costs for consumer so much that, for every job created in the renewables industry, two to three are lost in the rest of the economy. So much for DOI’s Casey Hammond’s statement that, “This action is about getting Americans back to work, strengthening communities and promoting investment in American energy.”

That makes no more sense than employing millions of Americans to exercise on stationary bicycles connected to electric generators to make power. At least the bikes would increase our citizens’ fitness and give them long-term jobs. 

The government tells us that a massive 380-megawatt lithium ion battery backup will be included to replace the power the solar plant is not able to generate at night. These batteries supposedly generate no greenhouse gases. Yet, even the left-leaning Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) pointed out that “Mining and processing the minerals, plus the battery manufacturing process, involve substantial emissions of carbon.” 

In reality, no batteries exist that could take up the load for long when the sun is not shining. And, if they could, it would take hours or even days to recharge them.

Anyone who thinks all this is a ‘green solution’ must not have seen Michael Moore’s brilliant new documentary Planet of the Humans. The film shows how active solar projects such as Gemini Solar are anything but green. Moore demonstrates that, when one considers the materials that are required to build these massive facilities, they produce huge amounts of toxic waste.

The CBC cites Jennifer Dunn at Northwestern University’s Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience who explained: “the material that helps power the battery is produced from a number of different metals, things like nickel and cobalt and lithium.”

And, of course, China controls most of the lithium and cobalt which are often produced with child labor and near-slave labor, and with practically no health, safety or environmental safeguards. For example, CBC reports that “there have been mass fish kills related to lithium mining in Tibet.” 

Moore’s film shows that solar stations are, in reality, just a front for more, not less, fossil fuel plants. And the negative impact on the fragile desert environment will be significant. The experts interviewed in Planet of the Humans don’t pull their punches: we have been lied to when it comes to the supposed environmental benefits of solar power and we have allowed ourselves to play-pretend for over three decades. 

In The Hitchhiker’s Journey Through Climate Change, a new book by Terigi Ciccone and the senior author of this article, we show that the renewable energy debate is actually over and can be summed up with a simple rule of thumb that states: in every community electric grid, an excess amount of fossil fuel or nuclear power must be available at the ready to go online in seconds, that is equal to the potential output of all intermittent solar energy considered a portion of the grids electric capacity.”

When one digests this simple rule, one wonders why the arguments over solar energy have gone on for so long without facing a stark reality: solar energy must never be an essential part of any energy portfolio. It must have 100% back up with rapidly variable fossil fuel-generated power to ensure that the communities’ electric grid will not let them down. Las Vegas of all places cannot afford a blackout.

After all, with temperatures at times spiking above 110 degrees Fahrenheit each summer and many hotels, homes and businesses with sealed windows, can you imagine what would happen if a city-wide power failure occurred during a heatwave and all the air conditioning suddenly shut off? Indeed, in such weather, homeless people must often seek cool indoor shelter or at least some will die.

Thinking that batteries are going to save Vegas has been and will be impossible for the foreseeable future. This project most likely will double down on lunacy, as in a few years it will need to build a fossil fuel-powered plant to back up the batteries that back up the intermittent and unreliable solar plant.

On top of that, this mandatory fossil fuel back up will need to run 100% of the time, at near full power, emitting pollution and greenhouse gases while burning almost the same fuel as if the solar plant was never there in the first place. And, when the fossil fuel backup is not at full power, they will be operating at low efficiency and so emit more CO2 and real pollution. Think of what happens to your car’s gas efficiency when driving in stop-and-go traffic.

In the final analysis, private and commercial customers will be burdened with considerable increases in their electric rates due to Gemini Solar. So, other than Warren Buffett and the relatively few people who will have temporary jobs during the construction phase, who will benefit from this adventure? Moore’s documentary shows exactly who the green energy opportunists really are. 

The Trump administration must revoke, or at least suspend, the project’s approval until all decision-makers have seen Planet of the Humans and formal inquiries into its real environmental benefits and problems are held. To phrase this gamble in the common vernacular of Vegas, the odds that this plant will be the one that works as intended when so many others have failed is about the same as the odds of winning at the roulette table in your first try—practically nil.

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Dr. Jay Lehr is Senior Policy Analyst with the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC) and former Science Director of The Heartland Institute. Tom Harris is ICSC Executive Director of and a policy advisor to The Heartland Institute.

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