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Nature Conservancy Proposes Brownfield Solar Siting

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(AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac, File)
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In this Feb. 14, 2006, a truck drives into the 600-foot deep mine at Barrick's Ruby Hill Mine, near Eureka, Nev. A think tank and an advocacy group say Nevada could adapt old mines and former industrial sites to meet an aggressive clean energy benchmark that voters endorsed with a statewide initiative.

The Nature Conservancy is working with the Nevada Mining Association on a plan that would make it possible to develop renewable energy plants on so-called brownfield sites, such as defunct mines.

The plan is called Mining the Sun. 

“The basic proposal with Mining the Sun is to make use of the abundance of lands that we already have in the state that have been impacted by prior economic development," said John Zablocki, the Southern Nevada Conservation Director at The Nature Conservancy

If it worked, the plan would pave the way to building solar arrays and wind farms outside of wilderness where recreationists like to hike, fish, and hunt, and sensitive habitat where endangered and threatened species live.

Zablocki told KNPR's State of Nevada that the Environmental Protection Administration estimates there are more than 2.8 million acres available to be repurposed.

However, there are some stumbling blocks for the project, Zablocki said. For instance, renewable energy production was not listed among the state regulations as a possible post-production use for mine lands in Nevada. 

The Nature Conservancy was able to get it added to the list, which removed a gray area for solar developers.

Zablocki said complications like those can make it too difficult to develop brownfields.

“If you add all these things up, it’s enough to tip the balance away from brownfield development onto greenfield development," he said, "greenfield development being what you see with large solar projects in intact areas.”

And it's not just conservationists who are onboard with the idea, Zablocki said. Unlike other projects or conservation ideas, Mining the Sun is getting broad support from Democrats and Republicans, urban and rural areas and those in the old and new energy economies.

“I’m pretty optimistic that in the not-too-distant future we’ll start seeing some good things happening on the ground. I think there is a groundswell of interest,” he said.

Zablocki admits there are some challenges because mining companies, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of Interior may not have thought about renewable energy in the past but that is changing -- and he said those obstacles are not insurmountable.

“If we can figure out how to put a man on the moon, we can figure out how to put renewables on mine lands,” he said.

(Editor's note: This discussion originally aired September 2019)

John Zablocki, Southern Nevada Conservation Director, The Nature Conservancy

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Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.