Solar Beats Diesel At Off-Grid BLM Fire Station

Solar energy is sometimes criticized as an intermittent, unreliable source of electricity, but at the Bureau of Land Management’s Red Rock Canyon Fire Station, they’ll take their new solar power system — said to be the largest off-grid solar project in Nevada — over their old diesel generator any day of the week.

The fire station, which serves the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area and surrounding public lands, sits just five miles west of the edge of the Las Vegas sprawl and only 15 miles from the pulsing heart of Vegas, where power consumption is wanton.

BLM Red Rock Fire Station solar power

image via Bureau of Land Management

You’d think that would make stringing a power line out to the fire station, where up to 60 firefighters live and work during the busy season, a piece of cake – and dating back to 2004, there was indeed an approved and funded plan to connect the station to the grid.

That it never happened is a confusing tale of bureaucratic bungling (it eventually led to a whistleblower allegation of gross mismanagement [PDF]). Suffice it to say, the result was that dispite a lot of planning and work, the fire station remained SOL when it came to reliable power.

An environmental assessment of the solar project [PDF] before it was built described how badly served the facility was by the old diesel generator: “Currently maintenance and oil changes leave the station without power, sometimes for hours at a time. In the event of a generator malfunction residents of the station are left without power and sometimes forced to relocate to local hotels until the problem is repaired.”

And that generator would, indeed, malfunction. In a recent press release announcing the new solar power system, Geoff Wallin, a fire operations specialist for the BLM, said that “with the diesel generator, we would lose power to the facility when we got to 110 or 115 degrees out here because the generator would overheat.”

There’s still a generator at the station, just in case, but it doesn’t sound like it will need to be used very often.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.