Dixie Meadows is a smudge of vibrant green in an otherwise muted pink and tan landscape. To travel there from Fallon, Nevada, the nearest city, one must first drive 40 miles east on US Route 50, a stretch of highway known as the “loneliest road in America,” and then another 40 miles north on a gravel road into Dixie Valley, a low-lying plain between the Stillwater Range and the Clan Alpine Mountains. Desert shrubs extend as far as the eye can see, until a shimmer of water appears on the horizon—the first sign of a desert oasis. Fed by a series of over 100 seeps and springs, these 760 lush acres at the foot of the Stillwater mountains encompass the entire global range of the endangered Dixie Valley toad. They are also a “surface expression,” as geologists put it, of an as-yet untapped geothermal energy source.
Wearing a straw cowboy hat and using a wooden staff as a walking stick, Patrick Donnelly leads the way into Dixie Meadows’ shoulder-high reeds, where we hope to find the smallest of the western toads. As the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Donnelly campaigned to get the Dixie Valley toad listed as endangered, which the Fish and Wildlife Service did in April on an emergency basis for only the second time in the past 20 years. Donnelly has also worked tirelessly to halt the progress of the largest threat to the Dixie Valley toad and the green oasis it calls home: the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project. Donnelly is concerned that if the geothermal project proceeds as planned, it will disturb or even dry up the series of hot springs that have created this verdant oasis.
The wind blowing across the plain is dry and hot, but our shoes squelch in the muck underfoot. We follow narrow trails through the grass likely made by the cows grazing nearby, bent over double looking for movement. Mormon crickets frequently draw our eyes, hopping deceptively. Finally, we spot a little toad.
No bigger than the tip of Donnelly’s thumb, the toad is green with brown spots on its back and a stripe down the middle that’s as pale as its belly. Dixie Valley toads top out at two inches in length, and this one is even smaller. It is a relatively ‘new’ species—only found to be genetically and morphologically distinct in 2017. I snap a few quick photographs, and Donnelly carefully releases a tiny creature that could upend more than a decade of research, exploratory drilling, and onerous permitting, bringing construction of two geothermal plants to a grinding halt.
Lawsuits that pit wildlife and ecosystems against alternative energy projects are a dime a dozen in the American West, but solar and wind projects are most frequently in the crosshairs. Geothermal energy is by many accounts a vastly under-used alternative source, the expansion of which will be necessary as part of any broad effort to eliminate fossil fuel use and stave off the worst of the climate crisis. But Donnelly and other conservationists are determined not to let biodiversity be sacrificed for the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project (or for that matter, most any other energy-production effort).
Critics consider the Center for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit to be part of an obstructionist NIMBYism trend, a hangover from the decades that environmentalists spent trying to block new oil and gas projects, those impulses now wrongly misdirected at alternative energy projects. But the barriers to scaling geothermal energy to its full potential do not begin and end with one lawsuit over a rare and endangered species, or even a handful of lawsuits. There are far greater technological and regulatory hurdles that the industry and the US government need to clear before “harnessing the heat beneath our feet.”
Viewed from above, the Great Basin Desert evinces a pattern: a line of mountains followed by a valley, then another mountain range, then a valley, and so on. These formations, sometimes called the “stretch marks” of North America, give the broader region, from Reno to Salt Lake City down into Mexico, its name: the Basin and Range Province. Nevada is the third most seismically active state and the fastest growing in the country, gaining a couple acres every year as the crust of the Earth spreads and the hotter layers of the mantle, a mix of magma and rock, well upward to fill the gaps. Nevada and the broader Great Basin Desert are riddled with fault lines, cracks in the earth that allow hot water to circulate with ease. It’s an ideal environment for geothermal energy: using the superhot interior of the Earth to make electricity.
A battle over a geothermal project pits a tiny toad against renewable energy. Can the planet’s heat be harnessed without risking extinction? #DixieValley. #Animals #Biodiversity #CleanEnergy #Geothermal
“The size of this area is comparable to many of the other famous geothermal areas in the world combined,” James Faulds, the state geologist and director of Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, says. “You can put in all of western Turkey, which is another hotbed for geothermal. You could put the North Island in New Zealand, another great spot for geothermal. You could put all of Iceland in—you could put all those areas into the Great Basin region, and you would still have room to spare.”
The United States is the world’s leading producer of geothermal electricity, responsible for almost a quarter of global capacity. California and Nevada combined produce nearly 95 percent of that generation. And while California is the top producer of geothermal energy in the United States, contributing over 70 percent of the country’s geothermal electricity generation (compared to Nevada’s 24 percent), geothermal makes up a greater share of Nevada’s total electricity generation—almost 10 percent.
Even so, geothermal is a mere drop in the bucket of the United States’ present energy mix, making up less than 1 percent of the country’s overall electricity generation. The Energy Department would like to see it make up more than 8 percent of US generation by 2050.
Geothermal energy has many advantages. “All forms of renewable energy are great, but geothermal is 24/7, so it’s good baseload, and it is also scalable, meaning that you can scale back or scale up,” Faulds says. “And the actual physical footprint of a geothermal development is less than solar or wind.”
If the country’s geothermal power generation reached 60 gigawatts-electric by 2050—a nearly 26-fold increase—it could dramatically reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in up to 516 million metric tons of avoided carbon-dioxide equivalent—more than the 2020 annual emissions of Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California combined. Direct use of geothermal energy, for heating and cooling purposes, could have an even greater impact. It’s a daunting goal, but one the Energy Department considers achievable, with advances in technology and regulatory reforms.
“It can and should be a bigger part of the nation’s energy budget,” Faulds says. “And I think we’ll get there.”
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