Las Vegas Sun

June 16, 2019

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Power lines tying up progress?

Solar projects snagged on law protecting historic artifacts

Hoover Dam

Leila Navidi

Traffic moves Monday along the Hoover Dam past the transmission lines that carry power from the dam. By law, old power lines can be considered historic artifacts.

Click to enlarge photo

Transmission lines more than 50 years old, like those carrying power from Hoover Dam, could be protected by federal law.

When considering Nevada’s cultural and historic artifacts, one thinks of Hoover Dam, American Indian petroglyphs, even the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

Generally power lines are not on the list.

But that’s the latest hiccup solar energy developers are swallowing. The power lines many of their projects would depend on are on federally protected land. They say they need new lines built or those old ones upgraded. Under the National Historic Preservation Act and related regulations, the BLM has to study the potential impact a solar energy project, and any resulting power line upgrades, would have on historical artifacts in the area. Strangely enough, that includes old power lines.

Under the law, any infrastructure on public lands that is at least 50 years old could be considered historic, even a working transmission line.

“Whoever said that is from another planet,” said Mark Harris, a Public Utilities Commission resource planning engineer, when he was first told of the red tape snag.

But it’s no joke.

Several of the lines subject to the rule stretch across Southern Nevada, most of them carrying electricity from Hoover Dam. These lines run through the most popular solar hot spots in the state. The BLM acreage near these power lines has attracted dozens of solar energy project proposals.

The operator of most of the old lines, the Western Area Power Administration, says it wouldn’t be able to accommodate every proposed project with its current technology.

Solar developers, likewise, have said for years there simply isn’t enough room for their power on the existing infrastructure. They want to see a large, modern transmission system capable of moving all their solar electricity beyond Las Vegas to population hubs such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

Without that capability, you can kiss your solar gold rush dreams goodbye, developers say.

The BLM recently completed a draft environmental impact statement on a massive multistate transmission upgrade plan. The report outlines areas where large-capacity, high-voltage transmission is most needed and what the effects of these new or upgraded lines would be. It includes several proposed new or expanded lines in Nevada.

The presence of a “historically significant” power line in the path of this new technology isn’t a death knell for solar projects. But it does create more paperwork and could stretch out the permitting process.

If an old power line on public land needs to be torn down or significantly altered to accommodate renewable energy projects, it triggers another layer in the lengthy environmental impact statement process. The BLM has to consult interested parties, from the power line owners to historians to electrical engineering enthusiasts, and evaluate the line’s historical value. The BLM’s office of heritage applies four basic criteria: association with important events, association with important people, whether it is an example of an important type of engineering or architecture, and whether it provides information important to history or prehistory.

If the line meets enough of those criteria, it could wind up on the National Register of Historic Places — as Hoover Dam is.

And while a connection to the dam is significant, the power lines themselves are unlikely to be considered vital to the nation’s history.

Instead, developers would be asked to mitigate the impacts of changing the power lines or tearing them down. They’d likely be asked to create a historical document about the line including engineering plans, photographs and a report on its history and use, among other things.

But even as the BLM is looking at how solar energy affects historical infrastructure, it could be creating new ones. The NexLight solar photovoltaic plant proposed on BLM land in Primm is slated for an initial lease of 50 years.

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