Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2019

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Working together, groups of different political stripes score a major win

A recent story out of Nevada offered refreshing news of what can happen when groups of Americans from different political ideologies resist the urge to retreat into camps and treat each other as blood enemies.

It occurred when the Nature Conservancy and the Nevada Mining Association, with support from the solar industry, agreed on a regulatory change that will allow solar energy development on land that was previously used for mining.

This is a masterpiece of common-sense policy, because repurposing mine sites for solar production produces winners all around. For the owners of old mine sites, it creates the potential of getting new revenue out of unutilized property. For the solar industry, it offers a chance to avoid the regulatory and legal hurdles that can come with placing arrays on undeveloped land.

For Nevada’s sensitive desert environment, and those who enjoy it, it offers a path to steer solar projects away from pristine areas.

But none of it would have happened if the organizations involved had entrenched themselves behind ideological walls. In a time of stark divisions in American life, this agreement provides an aspirational lesson: If we work together, solutions can be found that benefit everyone.

Make no mistake, the groups involved are often at odds. As the conservancy noted somewhat wryly in a news release about the change, “Mining companies, renewable energy developers and conservationists aren’t likely to be the first groups that come to mind for most people when they think of partnerships in Nevada.”

True. The Nature Conservancy and the mining industry have clashed over environmental regulations, and green groups like the conservancy have pushed back on solar development in sensitive areas despite being compelled to support clean energy overall because of its environmental benefits.

But instead of taking the attitude of “You just can’t reason with those people,” the groups came together. Working with the University of Virginia law school, the conservancy helped identify legal, financial and other reasons that solar development on mining sites wasn’t happening. From there, the conservancy and mining industry agreed to a regulatory change that adds “renewable energy development and storage” as a postmining use of the mines.

“What this does is make the rules absolutely clear that placing renewable energy projects on previously disturbed sites is an allowable use, making it easier for companies to explore that as an option for lands that aren’t going to be used for mining anymore,” said John Zablocki, the conservancy’s Southern Nevada conservation director, in the release.

The State Environmental Commission approved the regulatory change last week on the recommendation of the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection. Now, the change is expected to go before the Nevada Legislative Commission in coming weeks for final approval.

Assuming it clears the commission, it would open at least 35,000 acres of closed mining lands to solar development. Given that six acres of solar arrays can produce enough electricity to power 500 homes for a year, that’s a lot of potential.

Bravo to everyone involved. In the face of tribalism that can make it seem like the nation is stuck in reverse, Nevada has shown the value of discourse, civility and collaboration in creating smart, progressive public policy.