Huge U.S. solar project permit delayed over impact on historic trail

(Reuters) - A U.S. government agency has delayed issuing a permit for the Gemini solar power project in Nevada, one of the country’s largest proposed solar farms, over concerns about its impact on a historic region traversed by settlers of the American West.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management missed its target to decide on the so-called Section 106 permit governing the project’s historic impact by the end of March, after overshooting a previous deadline in December.

BLM spokeswoman Kirsten Cannon told Reuters this week the bureau can no longer give a timeframe for a decision but said it was working “expeditiously” to finish the work.

A draft agreement between BLM and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, viewed by Reuters, said the $1 billion project covering 7,100 acres (28.7 square kilometers) of federal land outside Las Vegas would have a visual impact on a historic railroad camp on the Moapa River Indian Reservation.

It would also have an impact on old travel and trade routes, including the Old Spanish National Historic Trail used by settlers in the 1830s to 1860s.

Nevada utility NV Energy, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc, said it still expects to complete the project on time in 2023, providing 690 megawatts for around 400,000 homes.

“The Gemini Solar project is a large, important part of our future renewable portfolio and we look forward to their successful on-time completion,” said NV Energy spokeswoman Kristen Saibini.

The project’s California-based developer, Arevia Power, said it too was hopeful regulators would act quickly. It suggested the coronavirus pandemic may have pushed the permit decision down the government’s list of priorities.

“In the current circumstances impacting federal government priorities, it would be prudent not to speculate,” Arevia Managing Partner Ricardo Graf said in an emailed statement.

Graf added that he did not expect the delay to impact the project’s ability to qualify for a critical federal tax credit for solar energy projects that is stepping down annually.

“Gemini’s status is not predicated on full scale construction commencing this year,” Graf said.

Many infrastructure projects are facing construction and supply chain delays due to the coronavirus pandemic. About a third of the nation’s planned utility-scale solar capacity could be slowed by the crisis, according to a report by energy research firm Wood Mackenzie published this week.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Marguerita Choy